2.5 out of 5 stars.
There have been a lot of people referring to “Red Sparrow” as the “Black Widow” movie. While we have yet to receive a stand-alone Black Widow film from Marvel Studios, Natasha Romanoff’s past has been referenced in past films. But outside of the similar titles, the fact that both characters are Russian, and that they attended a rigorous training school, it’s really an insult to drag Black Widow into this spy thriller that not only marketed itself all wrong, but also prides itself on style over substance as it over-indulges in graphic torture scenes while demeaning its leading lady.
The film, which reunites star Jennifer Lawrence with “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence, is set in Russia, where Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina who relies on her work to care for her ailing mother. When a leg injury ends her dancing career, she is drawn into a plot by her uncle, a Russian intelligence agent named Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts); in exchange for getting close to a Russian politician and switching his phone for one provided by the state, she will receive continued medical care for her mother. But things go south and Dominika sees something she shouldn’t have, so Ivan gives her a choice: be executed, or undergo training to become one of the Russian special agents known as Sparrows.
The time leading up to and during Dominika’s training is quite lengthy (as is the film itself, which clocks in at around two hours and twenty minutes). But this is where the film really didn’t advertise itself well at all. While previews make it appear as if Dominika will undergo physical training, the Sparrows are actually taught the art of seduction. Under the tutelage of the school’s headmistress, known as the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), the students learn how to get close to people and determine what they want—but in the most demeaning and uncomfortable way possible, while it’s to be implied that any of Dominika’s fighting abilities stem from her prowess as a dancer, and a temper and determination that is evidenced early on in the film. It’s disconcerting to watch Dominika be put through the ringer here, including fending off attempted rape (and not even for the first time in the film), before she is removed from the school and placed on her mission: to get close to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and find out who the mole is who has been working with the Americans and leaking Russian intelligence information.
The odd thing is, it doesn’t feel like all that brutal training Dominika underwent has any bearing on this mission. She gets close to Nate, but very quickly seems to like him of her own accord, although the fact that they have extremely little chemistry makes this hard to believe. Dominika begins questioning how her uncle and Russia has treated her, and the plot gets muddled fast once she starts playing both sides. There are some intriguing scenes, but they’re hard to follow, and the level of suspense plummets once the plot becomes over-complicated. There are probably around four or five different points in the film’s final act that feel like the movie is ending, but it just keeps going until it wears itself out.
If we cared at all about the movie and these characters, it’s hard to by the end of the film (the pay-off is rather sweet though), but Jennifer Lawrence does carry us through it with her fierce performance. This film is entirely hers (no one else in the cast is really worth mentioning, except maybe Schoenaert as her creepy uncle), which makes it even more of a shame that the filmmakers seem to believe that only by overcoming rape and torture can she become powerful. We can see through Lawrence’s performance that Dominika is intelligent and perceptive. We can glean from the information we are given at the beginning of the film that she is physically skilled, motivated, and determined. We don’t need to see her tortured, especially when those scenes are gratuitous and not essential to the plot. And I can’t help but wonder if that is why this film is set in Eastern Europe, as if seeing all these horrible things performed by a Russian government on a Russian agent somehow makes it more acceptable to Western audiences.
“Red Sparrow” is a nice-looking movie, with all the glamor and intrigue that we associate with spy thrillers thrown in. Francis Lawrence does a decent job directing much of it, particularly the opening sequences, which juxtaposes Nate meeting with the mole and evading the police with Dominika dancing, leading up to her life-altering accident. The back-and-forth between the characters as the music intensifies makes this an incredibly suspenseful and promising opening to the movie; it’s just a shame that suspense doesn’t hold through the entire film, or that Francis Lawrence and the screenwriters involved have a very misguided point of view when it comes to creating female-led action films.
Runtime: 139 minutes. Rated R.