Jennifer Lawrence has a new attempt at a franchise with Red Sparrow, a post-Cold War yarn of an injured Russian dancer named Dominika recruited to the spy game. Attempting to care for her handicapped mother she submits to become a Russian sparrow, undercover agents trained to manipulate with sexuality and also willful submissives to a punishing governmental agenda. Dominika falls for her first mark, an American agent Nate Nash (named as such in case you couldn’t already tell you’re really dealing with pulp, no doubt) played by Joel Edgerton – and perhaps finds her way out of subjugation. The entire enterprise is even more skeevy and derivative than it sounds.
A reteaming of Lawrence and her latter Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, the surface details of this story read like a natural fit for both. While the actress is game, Sparrow is almost too sprawling and convoluted to be contained by a single film, at least one guided by an unspecific hand such as this director. There is an ongoing trend to overstuff our genre exercises, and here the narrative becomes spread so thin that the film becomes glib to what requires more sensitivity. Ultimately, not only is the film rather irresponsible but it also makes little narrative sense.
There’s the Bolshoi, “whore school”, indistinguishable locales, sex that’s icky even when it’s consensual, and the mildest of twists tossed in out of habit. Intrigue paint by numbers that don’t add up. A new level of cinematic criminality, Matthias Shoenaerts and Charlotte Rampling go completely wasted. Were it not so self-serious, there could be some humor in its morose pitfalls.
Save for a bonkers scene of a drunken Mary Louise Parker as the treasonous chief of staff to a senator, Red Sparrow plays at the same inert level throughout its overlong runtime. This adds to the general confusion it creates; the audience can’t tell what information is important, let alone when we’re supposed to be enthralled or enervated. An overall sluggishness pervades the film, both in its visual and narrative structures, that make the film one dour sit.
Lost among its violent images of torture and sexual degradation, Red Sparrow has few ideas of what kind of thrill it wants to deliver. This international spy saga is of a piece with the grim Nordic crime subgenre popularized by Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo but lacks the ability those bigger names to examine larger systemic issues as it excites the audience. That flatness of thought, its lack of depth, renders the film fairly careless and almost offensive in its depiction of indoctrinated sexual assault. The film thinks it simply Bad, but indulges itself as if rape was a set piece with its implications lasting only as far as necessary for the next plot beat.
Shoddy accent or no, the film is blessed to have Jennifer Lawrence’s ever absorbing presence at the forefront. Audiences, while already taking her for granted, are reminded here what a physical performer she is thanks to the less understated demands placed upon her. She grafts the films with layers that would otherwise be missing, elevating it beyond its own mindlessness and bringing it the closest it becomes to a discernible identity. She remains one of the most watchable stars working today.
The film is is a two and a half hour sour taste in your mouth that luckily evaporates as soon as the film is over. Forgettability is its greatest stealth.