It becomes apparent in the needlessly complicated opening of Red Sparrow that you’re in for a film that’s going to bend over backwards in trying to entertain. That sequence, cutting back and forth between an undercover CIA agent running from Russian police and a ballet ingénue suffering a career-ending accident on stage, is the first sign that director Francis Lawrence’s newest thriller doesn’t know what storyline to settle on. And it only gets more unwieldy from there. The kink and violence undercutting the narrative would be its saving grace if it justified using those techniques. Instead, the story stumbles and falls towards a conclusion ripped from a film more sweeping.
Former ballerina for the Bolshoi Ballet, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), is sucked into a world of deception after agreeing to perform a task for her uncle. That task being to seduce a high-ranking Russian official and to extract information from him. Things go awry and she’s given a choice: Die or become a Sparrow, a league of super spies trained in the art of seduction and intelligence. After some semi-hard training, Dominika is tasked with uncovering a mole hidden somewhere in the Russian government. To get the name, she must grow close to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). All the while, there’s some sadistic Russian assassin on her tail to keep reminding her what will happen if she fails.
A big-budget thriller that isn’t afraid to be sexy. Sounds like a good idea, right? Even the most recent Bond movies have stopped being hot. You cast the most sought-after actress working in Hollywood right now and you task her with twisting that Hollywood image to make something that’ll break convention. Well, Lawrence did her best. The story dangerously tows the line between being self-serious and funny. And not the normal kind of funny, the kind that wants the audience to laugh at something screwed up. In this case: Let’s get the audience to all laugh nervously at Lawrence’s Dominika getting sexually assaulted multiple times. The character has the unusual task of taking beatings and becoming more resilient to them. But here, Dominika is the perfect example of a strong female character gone awry. When she’s finally given a moment to strike back, it’s all in service of the all-encompassing narrative about being wary of Mother Russia.
I wouldn’t discount Red Sparrow on this matter if it wasn’t for its insistence that it needs to be about something. That something is whatever thread it feels like picking up for a sustained period of time. In the finale’s case, it must be about the crushing power of the Russian government and the realization that it can only be destabilized from the inside. Dominika is an ID-less pawn in a game and when she’s able to declare checkmate on all those who usurped her, the story tries to coalesce into profundity. It falls flat on its face because it tries to be a two-hander: Romance and thriller.
Dominika’s seduction of Nate is supposed to feel quietly romantic. The one sex scene between the two feels arduous and is shot without a hint of eroticism. Is it supposed to reflect that Dominika can never be her past self again and is doomed to a lifetime of carrying out acts like a slave? Well, maybe the film should’ve capitalized on that.
There’s even a hint of camp among the proceedings that almost completely derails the film for the better. Bill Camp plays Nate’s supervisor that understands what Dominika is doing to Nate and finds humor in it. His pointed barbs are laugh-out-loud funny and they crack at Red Sparrow’s biggest fault: It’s a silly concept disguised in wolf’s clothing. It believes the story here is torturous and able to beat the audience senseless, but the entire film ends up being just as torturous. Its pseudo-sadism wants to make you believe in its emotional heft, but there was nothing there to begin with.
Director Francis Lawrence is at his weakest here, too. Catching Fire, the second entry in the Hunger Games series, was popcorn entertainment at its absolute best. It cared as much about its characters as the sweeping set pieces, all building to a film that we didn’t really deserve given the book series. Red Sparrow is shot to look like some heady political drama about the end of the world. Everything is set to grayscale except for Lawrence’s dresses. She’s meant to be the Mockingjay once again and this fails her. Save for one bravura knife fight towards the end of the third (of countless) act, the action is drab and without vigor. Like if Andrey Zvyagintsev decided to remake Body Heat.
Not all is lost, though. If you do so choose to still seek Red Sparrow at, make sure not to leave the theater during every single scene with Mary-Louise Parker. She’s the unsung hero of the film and her character will make more of an impression on you than any other in this.