Like the Cold War, “Red Sparrow” is over-dramatized, overly-long, and unsatisfying, leaving us questioning “just what was point of all that?” The film moves at the pace of a limping ballerina, and the plot is stagnant despite all of its explosive, espionage intrigue. Even committed performances from its stars can’t get this movie to properly align in our entertainment cross-hairs.
“Red Sparrow” follows Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) a brash, evocative ballerina turned Russian government operative. Dominika breaks her leg during a high-profile performance, effectively ending her ballerina career and putting her and her disabled mom in dire financial straits. Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), Dominika’s uncle despite looking her same age, offers the damaged dancer a chance to earn cash by seducing a politician and swapping his phone. The rendezvous is botched when the politician is killed, leaving Dominika with a deadly ultimatum: be killed herself, or become a highly-trained sex soldier known as a Sparrow.
Dominika reluctantly joins the Sparrow flock, learning good ole fashioned tricks at manipulating powerful men with nothing more than her butt and bosom. She’s assigned to trail Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a handsome CIA operative. But Dominika’s legs get intertwined with Nash’s in a deadly dance of political warfare. As shots are fired from both sides, we never quite know which direction Dominika’s heart is flying.
The movie supposedly takes place in current times, with Dominika’s shrew sparrow coach Matron (Charlotte Rampling) making reference of social media at one point. Still, the film never decides if it wants to be an old fashioned 80s political thriller or a modern era tale of sex and espionage. Phone calls are made primarily on landlines, and data is transferred over disk rather than USB. When we see Dominika take a photo with her cousin at the beginning of the film, we can’t tell if the picture is captured by smart phone or a regular camera. These loose definitions of technology and time act to “Red Sparrow’s” disadvantage, making the movie feel simultaneously outdated and out of touch.
Lawrence does a decent job with what she’s given, particularly in the torture sequences. Edgerton too is believable as the CIA operative Nash. Jeremy Irons gives the most intriguing performance as General Korchnoi, with his mysterious, soft-spoken nature conjuring a distrust similar to his character Simon Gruber in 1995’s “Die Hard with a Vengeance.” Based on what Irons gives us in “Red Sparrow,” it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to think that Simon ended up living and rose up in the Russian military, far out of John McClane’s jurisdiction.
“Red Sparrow’s” characters keep their emotions to themselves mostly in an effort to make the plot feel more realistic. But the situations Dominika finds herself in, as well as her reaction to them, are completely nonsensical. The concept of the Sparrow program is intriguing, as it isn’t’ hard to believe the U.S. or Russian government wouldn’t’ use sex as a means of achieving global diplomacy. The execution, though, is limp and flaccid, where we find ourselves unamused by this political inter-discourse.
The stagnant feel of “Red Sparrow” can be attributed in part to its lackluster direction. Francis Lawrence stages extended scenes where characters do nothing but sit or stand and talk to each other for long periods of time. Modern medicine must have come a long way in “Red Sparrow,” because Dominika’s’ supposedly injured leg shows no fatigue, despite the countless minutes she has to stand in one place doing nothing throughout much of the film.
The movie also suffers from a blaring soundtrack. James Newton Howard’s score is lovely but overused. Melodramatic strings reverberate in our ears when silence would do much better. Dominika may be a ballerina, but even the most symphonically lush ballets know when to give their musicians a break.
But direction, score, and performance are all just mere aesthetics masking the cold truth that “Red Sparrow” is a boring movie. There’s nothing keeping us engaged here, we don’t care if Dominika defects to the Americans, stays loyal to the Russians, or earns enough money to keep her mom alive. Things feel overly convoluted, with different script set-ups surmounting to nothing more than a pile of storytelling rubbish.
Even if “Red Sparrow” was good, it would still feel unrealistic given our current climate. Any Cold War movie with Russia as the bad guys will fall flat, considering American political leadership’s supposed ties to Russia. But “Red Sparrow” fails because it takes its time when it should be sprinting. The only sure thing with mutually assured destruction is that “Red Sparrow” won’t be remembered in the fallout.