Red Sparrow is based on a novel by Jason Matthews, a guy who used to work for the CIA. It’s loosely inspired by the ‘Sparrow Schools,’ state schools in the Soviet Union that were training programmes for female “sexpionage” agents. In these places they were taught to lure businessmen or government officials into giving away secrets, or trap them for blackmail.
Jennifer Lawrence plays a former ballerina, Dominika Egorova, who is approached by her uncle about working for the government after an injury ruins her career. Naturally, she goes through hell, including not one but two gruesome rape scenes. She fights her way through and eventually meets CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton)—she has been told to target him to find out the name of the mole is who is feeding information from the Russian secret service to the CIA. Dominika tries to play the two sides off against each other, but she may be developing feelings for her CIA counterpart.
One of the problems with the film is that the director, Francis Lawrence, didn’t want to make an erotic thriller—but that is essentially what it is. Another issue is that the film is set in contemporary Russia, but the story originates from events that took place during the Soviet regime. That just doesn’t work – it should have been a period piece. With the Putin dictatorship, there is surely an aspect of these sorts of shady things going on, but they can simply hire independent contractors (for example, the long-rumoured piss tape with Donald Trump.) The way modern Russia is depicted is ludicrous. For example, at one point Dominika needs to obtain some data but it’s on floppy disks: a form of data storage that is more obsolete than laserdisc at this point!
It feels like the kind of movie that a formerly big actor does after a long string of flops has forced them into the B-movie or VOD circuit, or something that gets pulled out of the vault when a young actor becomes a big star, as people try to re-release dreck to capitalise on their success. However, it’s a $69 million dollar studio picture—and definitely not the sort of movie studios are making anymore (reportedly, $15-20 million of that went to Lawrence!). If the director had decided to drop the gloss and play into the trashier elements, it actually would have been a much better movie. But with the choices made, it’s just a slick, multi-million-budget thriller with a hard R rating.
Lawrence gives a committed performance despite the poor material. It’s not as good as her turn in Mother, of course. The attempt to sell it as some kind of female empowerment film is laughable. It does have a good supporting cast, including Charlotte Rampling as the Matron of the sparrow school, Mary-Louise Parker, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Jeremy Irons as one of the main Russian generals.
Lawrence is a somewhat interesting director, who could have been the new David Fincher and is still attached to the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor which has been in-development hell for nearly two decades now. However, while this project obviously wants be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it lacks the filmmaking skill that Fincher brings to even his lesser films. He can pace a movie even when it’s long, but the pacing of Red Sparrow is really off. It’s simply baffling that it was made, but in the end it’s enjoyable enough to have some merit.
The disc includes a bunch of featurettes, and a commentary by Lawrence. Somehow they also still found 12 minutes of deleted scenes, even though It’s also at least 40 minutes too long.