There’s usually an element of sexiness with spy stories. They hide under a cloak of government sanctioned anonymity while wearing the chicest of clothing, dining in the finest of restaurants, drinking the finest of liquors, and bedding the most beautiful people in the finest of hotels. Yeah, there are shootouts, hostage situations, and the eventual loss of a one-night stand, but that’s just work, right? Especially after last year’s Atomic Blonde, it would seem sensible to expect that Jennifer Lawrence would be making her own feminist stance on the genre, teaming with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for the espionage thriller Red Sparrow. Instead Lawrence is headlining a painfully boring spy flick that forgets to include the intrigue while overloading on increasingly unpleasant and degrading moments of sexual violence. I’d forgive Red Sparrow if it were actually provocative, but the film is an astounding collection of moments that are simultaneously boring and aggressively unpleasant.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina that is pulled into the world of espionage by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) after she suffers a devastating injury that ends her dance career. Employing dirty tactics, Vanya enrolls Dominika in training to become a Sparrow, a super spy that will use all means, including sexual, to acquire information from her target. At this secluded training facility, Dominika is taught by Matron (Charlotte Rampling), a cold and calculating spy that wants to harden her students. This is where Red Sparrow starts get particularly ugly. So much of the training that Dominika has to go through involves some rather grotesque moments of sexual debasement, and Francis Lawrence’s camera seems to revel in crude violence that confuses toughness with degradation. And yet, nothing that occurs in Red Sparrow no matter how ghastly is the least bit interesting as the film slowly plods along.
Once finished with her training, Dominika is tasked with tracking CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), who has contact with a mole embedded in the Russian spy agency. She sets up in Budapest where, once again, she’s subjected to an array of degrading moments mostly at the hands of her chauvinist boss Maxim (Douglas Hodge). While she forms an unusual bond with Nash through their dueling surveillance of each other, she lays the groundwork for the payoff of her covert operations. All the layers of deceit and duplicitous players meander about as Red Sparrow takes its sweet time to get to any payoff, taking the longest route to its conclusion while amazingly maintaining a level of zero suspense.
At two hours and 20 minutes, Red Sparrow is an unrelenting slog to sit through, made all the worse by its grotesque violence. Over the bloated running time, the audience is forced to sit through multiple attempts at sexual assault towards Lawrence’s Dominika. But Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe (adapting the novel by Jason Matthews) just use the dehumanizing brutality for no real purpose other than the misguided notion that Dominika can only forge her toughness through repeated moments of degradation. Never does the film find anything worthwhile with its relentless brutality aside from reveling in sadism. Going even further, the film fails to mine its violence for any kind of narrative tension. It’s really quite astounding how bland the aggressive unpleasantness of Red Sparrow is.
One of the biggest movie stars in the world, Jennifer Lawrence delivers what might be the worst performance of her young and illustrious career, inflecting a laughably bad Russian accent. It really does seem that Francis Lawrence went out of his way to limit Jennifer Lawrence’s dialogue to limit the distraction of the awful accent. As her American counterpart, Joel Edgerton brings a rugged charm to his CIA agent but the sparks between him and Lawrence just never materialize. The lack of sexual chemistry between the two stars of Red Sparrow really hurts the film when it finally gets around to its conclusion as there are simply no emotional stakes driving the action. It’s so cold and brutal in every facet of its being that it’s impossible to get wrapped up in any aspect of this inept spy tale.
Red Sparrow is a truly remarkable failure. It’s a spy film completely devoid of tension. It’s a life or death story of international intrigue that is anything but intriguing. It’s a film overloaded with sadistic violence but it’s all hollow brutality. There’s nothing in Red Sparrow that would qualify as an action sequence. It’s a film that wants to explore sex as a tool of power but it’s only utilized to brutalize a half-naked Jennifer Lawrence. If only this film were the least bit interesting with its highly problematic material, but Red Sparrow is content to be a total snooze while subjecting you to scene after scene of dehumanizing and degrading violence.