*leans in and whispers* Psst… guys… I think Russia might be a relevant staple in American pop culture again…
Ah yes, for better or worse, the latest figurehead of life as an American living through the 1980’s that we’ve revived for our current timeline turns out to not be renewed interest in some niche video game or an obscure Saturday morning cartoon getting a second life on Netflix. Rather, the politically tumultuous rivalry between the United States government and the good ol’ Soviet Union is apparently next in line for an updated 2010’s revival, be it in pop culture or in reality. And while spending the last fourteen months living in the dystopic hellscape known as Donald Trump’s America has put this reviewer in no mood to give Russia credit for anything, I’m willing to put any politically motivated biases aside in the name of spending a quality two-plus hours of time at the cinema.
So here we have the latest attempt at a major studio capitalizing on the country’s collective desire for Disney and Marvel Studios to woman-up and make a damn Black Widow standalone film already – which leads us to Red Sparrow. The film is helmed by Francis Lawrence, director of the last three films in The Hunger Games franchise (or to put it another way: the director of exactly *one* good Hunger Games film), and sees the seasoned blockbuster filmmaker re-teaming with heroine Jennifer Lawrence in the leading role. But with that pedigree in mind, Red Sparrow might not be exactly the film which mass audiences were expecting to see…
“In Soviet Russia, the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election meddles with you!”
Fresh off her most divisive film yet in mother!, Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina whose promising career is cut short during a comically gruesome accident in the film’s opening sequence. Now unemployed and with funds to take care of her sickly mother quickly dwindling, Dominika begrudgingly agrees to take her Russian Intelligence uncle up on his offer to use her conventionally attractive physique to aid him with a job. One thing leads to another, and soon Dominika is forced to abandon her old life and join the ranks of Russian operatives known as “sparrows”, who are trained to use tactics of mental and sexual manipulation to seduce their targets and gain information from them. And in pure overachieving J-Law fashion, Dominika quickly rises through the ranks and proves to be one of the strongest assets (emphasis on the first syllable of “assets”) the academy has ever produced.
The best Red Sparrow has to offer in terms of quality rests in its individual elements. Jennifer Lawrence is always a likable, compelling screen presence and while she doesn’t do anything especially new or different here, she’s more than capable of pulling off this sort of role, which she of course does very well. The supporting players also fare just as well, with Joel Edgerton and Matthias Schoenaerts providing Lawrence with solid foils to work off of; and composer James Newton Howard provides the film with an appropriately ballet-influenced musical score, which helps the film explode to life right from the very opening moments. And if nothing else, Red Sparrow also delivers on the spectacle of seeing a cast full of non-Russian actors trying to pull off a tightrope act of 1.) Hiding the accents from their own countries of origin, and 2.) Attempting to pull off a Russian accent that at best only sounds marginally more authentic than if they were to ask every person they come across if they had seen “moose and squirrel.” So there’s that.
For all that Red Sparrow purports to be more subversive and daring than your average, run-of-the-mill spy fluff, it’s still very much indebted to the expected, commonplace tropes found within this sort of film. The entire shooting gallery is here: plot twists, double crosses, forbidden romances, macguffins, hidden societies, etc. You name a plot element that’s typically associated with contemporary spy fare and Red Sparrow likely pays lip service to it. But that wouldn’t necessarily be a detriment to the overall quality of the film if it were attempting to actually subvert these elements or at least try its hand at some sort of commentary with them. But all the subversion – or at least feigned subversion – in the film comes in regards to its sexual politics (which we’ll get to in a moment). When the narrative requires that everyday espionage and spy elements be called upon, they’re utilized without much noticeable variation or shift in tone, which just leaves these elements feeling as dry and contrived as they’ve ever been, unfortunately.
As has been alluded to ahead of time in this review, one of the most noteworthy and important aspects of Red Sparrow deals with it sexual politics. While on some level I do admire its frankness and the decidedly matter-of-fact ways it approaches some rather grisly and uncomfortable content (some level of kudos are in order here for actually showing penises in an unironic, non-joking manner), the fact still remains that this film now exists at a time in the film industry where women being sexually advanced upon and even potentially exploited by their male superiors is getting a long overdue reckoning and re-examination in our modern culture. For this film to be released during the height of this movement and have it merely address these subjects without really taking the time to explore their impact, well, it can’t help coming across as a little tone deaf, or at the very least just poorly timed – albeit not as poorly timed as the remake of Death Wish was. Holy cow.
Alternative working title for the film…
For what it is, Red Sparrow is a completely passable and competent genre exercise. Contrary to what the marketing would have you believe, it’s less of a badass female spy action thriller in the vein of Atomic Blonde or the Black Widow solo film that never happened, and is actually more of a big budget exploitation flick with more brutal violence and graphic nudity than you’d expect from a mainstream film of this caliber with such a notable cast of celebrities behind it. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is entirely up to you. This reviewer finds himself firmly in the middle of the road with this puppy; the level of craft in regards to the acting, production design, cinematography, etc. is all commendable to be sure, but the deliberately uncomfortable sexual politics and half-assed acknowledgement of the current turmoil between US and Russian relations hinder a great deal of the enjoyment factor herein. It’s a wishy-washy recommendation at best, but if it sounds like your cup of tea, then feel free to seek it out before it gets steamrolled by the latest Disney-Marvel tentpole.
Red Sparrow (2018) Drinking Game
Do a Shot: for each delicious, shoddy Russian accent you pick up on.
Do another Shot: for every plot twist.
Shotgun a Beer: along with each double cross (start on another if you called it ahead of time).
Start on a Brand New Six Pack: during each scene featuring over the top and grotesque moments of violence.