Kudos to Jennifer Lawrence (JOY; AMERICAN HUSTLE) for taking risks with her post-HUNGER GAMES career. Some of her projects, like MOTHER! have worked… sort of. Others, like PASSENGERS, have flopped at the box office. Now, the 27-year-old, who is reported to be the world’s highest paid actress these days, has teamed up with her former HUNGER GAMES director, Francis Lawrence, to play a Russian prima ballerina-turned-lethal weapon in the post-Cold War spy thriller, RED SPARROW.
After Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) breaks her leg ending her stage career, she is recruited by her uncle (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, THE DANISH GIRL) to become a Russian intelligence operative who uses her body as a weapon. After a quick stint at “Sparrow School” where she proves herself to be something less than the best student in the class, she is assigned to her first mission and it’s a big one. She must go to Budapest to seduce CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, LOVING; EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS) and learn who his mole inside the SVR, the successor to the USSR’s KGB, is. Using both her body and her brains, she gets close to Nash while trying to keep her predacious uncle and the SVR at bay.
RED SPARROW is based on the 2013 award-winning novel by Jason Matthews, himself a former CIA operative. I’ve got to suspect that the book is better than the movie because the movie really is high-class trash. The whole premise that a ballerina, after just a few lessons in seduction, lock picking and target shooting, could hold her own against seasoned agents is slightly ridiculous. Granted, Dominika is highly motivated for reasons that are revealed in the story (and the trailer) but even these are never fully fleshed out to be believable. To make matters worse, Dominika does a few things that no well-trained agent would ever do: First, she dies her hair the most perfect shade of blonde and then she goes swimming in a pool. I’m no expert but I doubt a home dye kit could produce such good results. Moreover, I believe her hair should have turned green from the chlorine at that point. Second, also at the pool, she wears the skimpiest of swimsuits to do laps. Yes, she wants Nash to notice her but it’s hardly a subtle lure. The audience at my screening broke out in laughter at that scene. And that’s the bottom line with this film. RED SPARROW is really nothing more than spy porn. If you’ve been wondering what J-Law looks like without any clothes on, now’s your chance to find out. I’m not sure that was the smartest of career choices to make.
To make matters worse, all the actors playing Russians put on laughable “Moose and Squirrel” accents while Edgerton struggles to put on a credible American accent. Perhaps this film should have been made by the Europeans. On the plus side, I don’t think anyone ever realised how much Schoenaerts looks like Vladimir Putin. If someone is considering making a contemporary version of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN or THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, he’s the man to play the Russian leader. The scenes with Jeremy Irons (JUSTICE LEAGUE; RACE) and Charlotte Rampling (ASSASSIN’S CREED), who both play evil Russians, are probably the best but we’ve seen much better performances from these actors. Also good is Mary-Louise Parker (TV’s WEEDS), who adds some fun to this dull thriller by playing a boozy aide to a US senator. Unfortunately, her scenes are all too brief.
Although the film is supposed to be set today, there’s clearly a late ’80s/early ’90s vibe to the story. Russia is depicted in shades of grey, grey and grey. There’s also a scene involving some now-obsolete technology that also elicited some hefty laughter from my audience. But the challenge for Dominika and the audience is to work out who the mole is. I honestly didn’t figure it out until the big reveal (and I usually see the twists and turns long before they come) but I really didn’t care at that point. I was just waiting for the final credits to roll.
RED SPARROW, with all its faults, is not a completely horrible film but it certainly could have been a whole lot better than it was. If you’re looking for some mindless entertainment, check it out. Just don’t analyse the story too closely and you’ll be fine. As Boris Badenov is known to say, “It’s as dumb as a sack of hammers.”
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, March 8th at 8:30 am HK time!
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