Skip to main content

In my country, if you don't matter to the men in power, you do not matter.

Red Sparrow
(2018)

(SPOILERS) The biggest talking point in the wake of Red Sparrow’s release isn’t the movie itself, it’s whether or not J-Law is a bona fide box office draw. The answer is fairly mundane: about as much as any other big name star outside of a franchise vehicle is. Which isn’t very much. Peg her alongside Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Tom Cruise and on the lower end of the scale, the eternally-struggling-for-an-audience-when-not-Thor Chris Hemsworth. The movie itself, then? While it replicates the stride and demeanour of a traditional Cold War spy yarn with assuredness (as in, it’s a conscious throwback), Red Sparrow falls short in the conviction stakes.


Indeed, more of the strident, brazen disregard for convention of Atomic Blonde might have done the movie a power of good, as it rather falls between two stools. On the one hand, keen to emphasise the plausible strife, suffering and endurance of Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova through unvarnished depictions of sexual assault, physical and emotional violation, and… stylish water torture. On the other, happy to titillate in classic sexy Hollywood thriller style. Dominika is presented as a young woman with a capacity for violence, but almost entirely omitted is the charting of her resourcefulness as an agent in favour of depicting training as a series of sexual confrontations; then, lo and behold, she’s miraculously deemed ready to go out in the field. There’s a fatal failure in underpinning here, as we have no real insight into what Dominika’s supposed to have learned (other than the art of conquering men, which is sketched as an intuitive sense anyway), so everything that follows seems rather unlikely. And not in the Atomic Blonde, uber-heightened action sense, but in the “Dominika would never get away with any of this” distancing sense.


Justin Haythe adapted Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel, one that garnered comparisons with John Le Carré, but in the screen version at least, never quite betrays the necessary sense of authenticity and intricacy of the spy trade. That probably starts with the central conceit – “ballerina becomes covert operative” is exactly the kind of ludicrous selling point Hollywood laps up, about as plausible as an extreme sports enthusiast becoming a government agent; for starters, if you’re well enough known to be recognisable, why on earth would you be deemed a feasible asset, no matter how many strings your less-than-beneficent uncle may pull? – but it extends to the schemes she hatches, and the failure to elicit even a glimmer of tension between the demands of the patriotic and the personal (the former are only ever seen as unjust and to be endured in order to protect the personal; it might have been more interesting if Dominika has some investment in both, leading to conflicting loyalties).


Lawrence’s performance is fine, but for reasons of the above, you’re never quite buying that she’d be able to command the responses or permissions she gets (and the swimming cossie she chooses is all kinds of absurdly flaunting). Then there’s her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, a ringer for a young Putin in any biopic, surely a factor in his casting), who proves just a little too gullible for such a guileful, ruthless figure (I know she’s his Achilles’ heel, but it’s making that play effectively that’s elusive). That said, Schoenaerts gives probably the picture’s standout performance.


Most of the rest of the cast seem like stock types in this kind of formula paranoia, performing commendably but imbued with the distancing that comes from experienced thesps approximating vaguely Eastern European tones (I’ve said this of other recent Hollywood forays into other countries – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Child 44 and The Snowman among them – but the device of English speakers substituting for native languages seems increasingly antique). There’s Charlotte Rampling’s stern matron, Joely Richardson’s crook mum (offering groan-worthy motivation for Dominika), Ciaran Hinds’ shrewd colonel and Jeremy Irons’ quizzical general. Since we know there’s a spy to be revealed and there are only so many suspects, there aren’t too many possible surprises (I was pulling for Ivan, just to see how they’d explain it away), but Irons had to be suspicious, wearing as he does his uniform in a shockingly slouchy manner (top button undone, as if he’s just arrived from makeup unprepared, or been called away from a particularly uncompromising bowel movement).


Joel Edgerton is duly serious-minded as Lawrence’s love interest and makes much more of a thin role than a Pratt or Hemsworth would, but Nate Nash is a selection of half-baked clichés, from being a bit of a rebel to getting that one last chance from his bosses. One could argue that Nate and Dominika being upfront with each other concerning their respective agendas makes for a refreshing change, but it also saps any tension from the proceedings. Plus, there’s no chemistry between the stars.


The tension is serviced sporadically by the reliable Francis Lawrence, his fourth successive team-up with his surnamesake. He delivers the splutterings of sex and violence effectively, although sometimes a little too ornately (as in favour as I am of not dwelling on viscera, the care with which the skin-grafting device isn’t shown in action, or come to that, the manner in which a strategically-placed arm conceals his star’s finer modesty, serves to confirm how mannered and old-school the picture is in basic form). Where he stumbles is not dissimilar to Mockingjay Part I, unable to find the appropriate pace amid the boring old talking, with the consequence that Red Sparrow tends to the languorous when it should be claustrophobic and bristling with paranoia (De Palma at his peak could have worked his magic on it, including making an operatic virtue of the dafter elements).


There are a couple of first-class scenes along the way, though. One features a cameo from Mary-Louise Parker as a plastered chief of staff selling secrets while Dominika covertly switches them (are they really on floppy disc?!) and deals with her leery boss Volontov (Douglas Hodge). Another focuses on Sebastian Hülk, on fine psychotic hitman form as reliable assassin Matorin; the character’s only undermined at the final hurdle, for being silly enough to let Dominika loose with a skin-grafter.


Red Sparrow is predictably predictable with regards to its political take on the “evil empire”, making it again less intriguing than the infinitely dirty goings-on of every side in Atomic Blonde. This is more in line with Salt, where Russia will act with impunity against all things US simply because they’re Russia (that is, after all, the story everyone has been coaxed to swallow whenever the country is accused of malfeasance – “Of course they did, it’s Russia” – no matter how inept such flagrant displays might make them seem). Where America may have its minor issues (like failing to instil sufficient emotional detachment in its CIA guys – but hey, their humanity is a virtue!), at least it doesn’t indoctrinate its poor citizens (and its women!) to do its unspeakable commands... The essential takeaway from the movie is that the only good Russian is one enthusiastically betraying their country (unless excusably incapacitated), which probably thrills the CIA (who endorsed the novel with two thumbs up. Well, four actually).


Ultimately, the two Lawrences have teamed on a movie that isn’t thrilling enough to justify tentpole status or sufficient cerebral to garner critical respect; no doubt they put their heads together thinking Red Sparrow would show off Jennifer in a classy, serious, grownup role, but the material itself remains too pulpy to permit that. I can’t say Black Widow was really on my mind while watching, but any fears Marvel might have had for her announced solo outing – should they be intending to plunder the obvious origins story – ought to be put to rest on this evidence.


But even more than the iffy trained-assassin motif, Red Sparrow does rather leave open the question of just how effective a modern-day political thriller of any ilk can be, whether set in the Middle East or the former Soviet Union. Unless it’s extremely astute, it will be relying on learnt devices and simplified narratives, when the murk of motivation from all parties, and webs spun for reasons that don’t simply come down to good guy-bad guy posturing, are required if it’s to foster any conviction. As for a sequel (Red Sparrow is the first in a trilogy), I think we can safely assume it isn’t going to happen, at least not outside of a TV reboot.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

It's a trip I won't forget, Avon.

Blake's 7 4.11: Orbit

Robert Holmes’ fourth and final script for the series is a belter, one that combines his trademark black comedy with the kind of life-or-death peril that makes some of his more high stakes scripts for Doctor Who (The Deadly Assassin and The Caves of Androzani for example) stand out. 

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a noirish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…