Red Sparrow Review: The Cold War Gets Hot Again
Red Sparrow Review: Jennifer Lawrence reunites with (one of) her Hunger Games directors in a film that takes an increasingly familiar trope and runs with it.
Audiences and people in general love to look backward, and the deeper they look, the darker their rose tinted glasses. The first 18 years of the 21st century have already seen large swathes of the last century reborn and revisited, and the deeper into the new century we go, the more we will idealize the past. From fashion to food, music to movie-making, it seems like everything from the 20th Century is taking its turn, especially the later half, which is only now old enough to be worthy of nostalgic reexamination. In Hollywood it’s only a matter of time until everything is rebooted, and that includes bygone eras and romanticized enemies.
One such character to make a triumphant return to the public consciousness in the past few years is America’s worthy old adversary and ideological foe, Big Bad Russia. Whether it’s tampering with real-life elections (allegedly) or giving voice to a ruthless secret agent brought to life by beautiful Hollywood actresses, Russia is back. And America’s tinsel-factory stands ready and able to serve up a healthy helping of espionage and assassination spectacle with the old enemy. Red Sparrow, a taught and intelligent thriller, nicely revives some of those old, cold fears in our new, crazy world.
Based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow features Hollywood golden-girl Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina who dances for the who’s-who of Russian power and society. After a freak accident leaves her unable to dance, her life is turned upside down, and unable to provide for herself and her sick mother (Joely Richardson). It also leaves her at the mercy of her secretive uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) who has questionable plans for his beautiful niece.
Creepy uncle Ivan decides Dominika has the right combo of goods to become super bad and sends his destitute niece off to “Sparrow School,” a government-run institution where Russia’s young men and women with potential are stripped of their identity (and morals), and then molded into master manipulators of body and mind. It’s here that they go from being normal, everyday citizens to brutal and efficient weapons of the State.
After mastering the program, Dominika is unleashed for a crucial mission to identify and capture an informant hiding within the top ranks of the Russian government. To do this, she must first win the trust of the informant’s American contact, CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Egerton). In each other, they immediately recognize a legitimate threat, but also a vital opportunity. For Nash, Dominika presents the potential of a valuable informant in a merciless, secret war where information is currency and raw data is ammunition. For Dominika, Nash represents the possibility of retribution and a shot at true freedom.
Director Francis Lawrence crafts a visually lavish and cutthroat cat-and-mouse spy thriller, albeit a familiar one. The sets and locations are ornate and visually interesting; the pacing and action brisk and visceral. Much of the setting and subject matter will be unmistakably familiar to American audiences – including the increasingly familiar, but not necessarily unwelcome trope of the beautiful femme fatale superspy (Black Widow, Atomic Blonde, Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans, Alias, La Femme Nikita, etc) – but Lawrence once again elevates the material and makes it feel fresh and engaging.
She’s relatable and consistently pulls the audience into her character’s world and perspective – and she looks fantastic, utilizing exquisitely each of the stunning costumes designed for her by Trish Summerville, another Hunger Games alum.
Jeremy Irons is also expectedly fantastic as Russian General Korchnoi, and Mary-Louise Parker makes yet another great splash as a boozy Senator’s aide with secrets to sell. Egerton, always a strong performer, proficiently creates a man in the very American-named Agent Nash that, like Dominika, we want to follow but are cautious to trust. And indeed the price of that trust is put to the test in a climactic scene of skin-tingling torture that is just disturbing enough to be memorable and relieving once it’s over.
One of the only significant flaws with the film comes when Dominika trains at the Sparrow School. It’s simply too quick. It’s one of the film’s most interesting parts, but it feels like there was significant material from the book that the film moves through surprisingly fast. Considering the film’s 2+ hour run time, there were probably several cuts to get to the main story, but there’s still enough information to illustrate what kind of weapon she’s being fashioned into. It’s a minor gripe, but a little more would have gone a long way.
Red Sparrow Review Conclusion:
Packed with slick and elegant visuals, buoyed by strong performances and brisk pacing, Red Sparrow is a solid and capable thriller. Fans of Jennifer Lawrence will not be disappointed. She absolutely delivers and continues to showcase why she’s one of Hollywood’s most bankable actresses today.
As a whole, the film comes short of being any sort of game-changer as an action movie or a major reshaping of the spy genre, but it solidly proves itself as a fun and engaging ride that simultaneously satisfies and reminds us all how our old Russian friends just won’t be ignored.
Red Sparrow is rated R with a running time of 140 minutes.