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Movie Review: Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow wants to be many things, fails at all of them

Red Sparrow
Directed by Francis Lawrence
In Theatres

Red Sparrow begins promisingly, cutting between Jennifer Lawrence's ballerina Dominika Egorova's life and Joel Edgerton's Nate Nash's spy craft. Moving between the two highlights the loneliness of their lives, an American spy in Moscow, a ballerina caring for her ill mother. The cuts speed up, the edits come quicker as she takes the stage and he makes his meandering way to a meeting with an asset in Gorky Park. His meeting ends with his cover blown and a chase to the American embassy, her performance ends with a broken leg. His mistake ends with him back in the United States being reprimanded. Her mistake ends with her being pimped out by her Russian spy uncle so the state can assassinate a rapist oligarch. 

And then Dominika gets offered a choice - get sent off to what one character calls "whore school" or, you know, die. And Red Sparrow becomes the movie where fun goes to die. Where fun dies an excruciatingly slow and painful death. 

Don't believe the trailers. Red Sparrow is not the Black Widow movie we've been waiting for. Neither is it Salt, La Femme Nikita, Point of No Return, or Atomic Blonde, no matter how much the trailer tries to convince us it is. What it is, right off the hop, is boring. Dull. Tedious. Getting to see the bits of Jennifer Lawrence that are usually covered by a bathing suit does not make Red Sparrow any less painfully dull. 

Red Sparrow is like some bro's idea of female empowerment. Female empowerment mixed in with 1950s kink fantasies, and humiliation and rape fetishes. I don't think I've ever seen a film that was this boring while also being this uncomfortable to watch. 

The worst stretch has to be the sparrow school, the spy/sex school Dominika gets sent to instead of, you know, dying. Charlotte Rampling gives the most monotone and boring lectures on sex while occasionally humiliating the women in her charge. They go on for hours. And all in a accent that is just one step removed from Boris and Natasha. Seriously. In between "blah blah blah sex" and "blah blah blah sex" I kept expecting her to slip in a "moose and squirrel". I wouldn't have blinked if it turned out she answered to Fearless Leader. 

Anyway. The sparrow school seems to be a spy school where very little spy craft is taught. Just hour after hour after hour of Charlotte Rampling lecturing about "learn what the target really wants" and "give the target what they really want" and "blah blah blah sex". The future spies are lectured on sex, watch bondage porn, taught how to lock pick, and occasionally are raped.

Jennifer Lawrence is fine as Dominika. Her ballet dancing is a bit uncomfortable to watch, the edits between her and a real ballerina body double are jarring. Ms Lawrence rarely emotes, playing Dominika as all steely-eyed resolve and determination. Which is great for an actor with depth behind the steely-eyed resolve. The director seems to think there is an ocean of depth there with close-ups so close that only her eyes are in focus. Which made me think of what someone like Rooney Mara would do with this role. Think of Ms Mara's steely-eyed resolve in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, with the oceans of rage and vulnerability below the surface. But then Red Sparrow will probably make it's investors a hell of a return in its first week with Ms Lawrence in the lead so what do I know…

And then there's Joel Edgerton. I never thought Joel Edgerton could give a bad performance but here we are. He has so little chemistry with Ms Lawrence it's almost negative chemistry. Whenever a character in the film teases Dominika about her relationship with the cute American I worried that I had fallen asleep and missed an important character. Of course it could be the fact that he is nearly twenty years older than her… 

But what is good about Red Sparrow you're wondering? It looks good. The scenes in Russia are full of shadows with a colour palate built around grey. The scenes in the west are bright, almost over lit, and full of vibrant primary colours. The scenes in Hungary fall somewhere in the middle. Some of the performances are really quite good. Jeremy Irons, Bill Camp, Sakina Jaffrey, the mighty Ciaran Hinds, and Mary-Louise Parker all bring their A-games, elevating the film.

A couple of the scenes between Mr. Edgerton and Ms Lawrence really are good, testing how much the other one knows, how much they can trust each other. Unfortunately those scenes go nowhere and just hint at the film that could have been. And that is Red Sparrow, a film with that makes some promises it can't keep. It wants to be a spy flick that keeps the audience guessing. It wants to be some kind of trashy sex drama. It wants to shock its audience with its violence. But Red Sparrow is neither smart nor fun enough. And when most of the violence is directed at the women in the film for no other reason than to shock, it just becomes tedious. 

There are much, much, much better films to drop your hard earned dollars on. I also saw Lady Bird this weekend. It's just about perfect, every frame, every performance, every second. It's funny and heartbreaking and surprising and and is worthy of all of the praise and love and accolades and awards. And if you really are looking to watch a good women kicking ass flick, there's a whole slew of them. Salt, La Femme Nikita, Point of No Return, Atomic Blonde, Mr. and Mrs. Smith - they deserve your love and your dollars. Not Red Sparrow. It deserves to be forgotten.