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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.

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