Serious spy thrillers are a rare breed of film these days. Espionage never went entirely out of style, but it’s usually all stunts and silliness first, spy-craft second. Francis Lawrence inverts that equation in Red Sparrow, his new spy thriller that places Jennifer Lawrence at the center of a deadly game of seduction and deception. The result might not be as clever as it would like to be, but it’s an admirable attempt to tell a serious spy story and for those that just really miss the Cold War it’ll probably get the job done.
Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina forced to leave the stage when she breaks her leg after being sabotaged by a jealous dancer. Unsure how she will continue to care for her ill mother, she turns to her uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) who works in the intelligence community. Dominika soon finds herself forced into becoming a Sparrow, a spy who specializes in using seduction to extract information for the government.
Dominika’s time spent at what she dubs ‘whore school’ might be the biggest missed opportunity in the film. The school run by Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling is meant to teach the art of discovering need and subverting emotion. What we see is little more than a freshman seminar in psychology, albeit with a lot more nudity. It would have been compelling to see Dominika develop a talent for these skills, but the film simply doesn’t have the time to spare. It’s a consistent problem with the film that doles out bits of intriguing premise that are cut off too short. The whole plot around the ballet sabotage could be its own film, but Justin Haythe’s script just doesn’t have time for that. So, before we really get to see her do much training at all, Dominika is dispatched into the field to seduce Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and uncover the identity of a mole in the Russian intelligence community.
Here we get to what is meant to be the meat of the film, but it is, ironically, the bit with the least substance. Lawrence and Edgerton play out a game of seduction, using and being used by one another while the film tries to obfuscate who is truly in control. The whole film starts to sag here as director Francis Lawrence makes the mistake of believing that Lawrence and Edgerton’s star power will be enough to drive the film into its third act. But while Lawrence and Edgerton are undeniably talented, they don’t exactly light up the screen together. Maybe its the perfunctory dialog or the fact that the film tries to keep the audience two steps behind, but the chemistry set these two are working with is in dreadful short supply of anything that generates heat. On the explosive scale, you’re going to want to set your expectations somewhere in the area of Diet Coke and Mentos.
Now, that’s not great news for a film that sells itself as an erotic thriller, but while Red Sparrow might not make you hot under the collar, it will at least do you the courtesy of making you scratch your head a bit. Justin Haythe’s script is based on the debut novel by Jason Matthews, a career spy turned novelist, so he knows his way around spy craft. The film has one or two tricks up its sleeve, but the film trades in quite a bit to make those twists work. When the film finally does pull the rug out from under you, there’s not a whole lot underneath to fall into.
For a film that clocks in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, that’s a bit of a problem. Red Sparrow, like a lot of these 140 minute films, manages to feel both too long and too short at the same time. It’s a common issue when there’s simply too much ground to cover. This is a film that features both Jeremy Irons and Mary Louise Parker, but I haven’t written a word about either of them, because, quite frankly, they really don’t need to be in the film. Justin Haythe’s script cries out for editing, and it’s hard not to wonder if there isn’t a leaner, meaner Red Sparrow buried somewhere in here.
Verdict: 3 out of 5
Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow wants to be a taught, sexy, and serious spy thriller, and while it checks quite a few of the boxes, it doesn’t quite nail any of the three. It’s too meandering to be taught, too cold to be sexy, and it toes too wide a tonal line to really be serious. The violence in Lawrence’s film might be stark and brutal but it pulls all of its political punches. There are exactly zero mentions of Putin in this Russian espionage thriller, referring to him instead as ‘the President’, and the whole film feels like it’s had its political edges sanded down. A political thriller can only be so effective when it’s forced to live in a politically sanitized world. Red Sparrow commits no great cinematic sins, but is guilty of a legion of small errors and miscalculations that ultimately turn what could have been a modern spy classic into a Cold War throwback we’ll have forgotten about by summer.