by Michael B. Hock
Let’s get this out of the way from the start: Red Sparrow is a brutal, brutal movie.
Over the years we’ve gotten sort of used to over the top visions of torture and violence that we are prepared for in some way. There’s a countdown on Jigsaw’s torture device, James Bond is stripped down before he’s put in a chair with no bottom, or we see the name “Adam Sandler” before the opening credits- we know what we’re in for. Red Sparrow is a movie that forgoes a lot of these niceties, and announces just what kind of movie it’s going to be by just having a dancer jump on the leg of another dancer, then show it bent at the wrong angle.
It’s that kind of movie.
Let’s back up for a moment: Red Sparrow is a Russian spy movie about a young dancer Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawerence, doing her best accent that will catch Moose and Squirrel) who is drafted into the Red Sparrow program by her uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts). The Red Sparrow program is essentially Cinemax School, in which young men and women are taught to put their bodies on the line for the state, by using seduction to do… spy things, I guess. Dominika is assigned to head to Budapest to discover a mole inside the Russian Government, who was seen passing information to a disgraced-ish American Spy, Nate Nash. (Joel Edgerton.) I say that because it’s clear in the beginning that everyone is mad at him for protecting his contact, but not enough to not let him do other spy things.
Red Sparrow is not a movie concerned with watching the clock. That is, it’s a movie that’s long, and it’s one that feels long, with multiple trips across the country, and a ticking clock that seems to exist except for moments in which it doesn’t. There’s this mole in the Russian Government, but at the same time it’s perfectly willing to wait for a sort-of-montage in which Dominika learns to be a spy in the most brutal way possible. While some movies can get away with this, it’s noticeable in most sequences, and it really just highlights the fact that she is moved from one corrupt handler to another to the point that you really start to wonder during the runtime just how anyone gets anything done.
What it does do extremely well is keep you guessing – there are several twists that do make me want to go back to the movie to see where things were hidden. While it did seem to take a long time to get to the point of the movie, I did enjoy the fact that the entire thing was consistent throughout with stories of what we owe the state and what we owe ourselves. There’s really a vengeance angle I wish it had played up more in this twists, because at it’s core this is a movie very interested in the idea of revenge.
When I mentioned earlier that this is brutal – it certainly is. The movie doesn’t pull back when it is time to torture someone, graphically showing in a few places just what violence begets people. What makes them so effective is the way they do manage to come out of nowhere, save for the first few minutes that prepares you for this. Theres’s also an interesting level of sexual violence that is throughout the film, which is don’t overtly in a few places, and not so overtly in others. I may have joked about Cinemax School early on, but the Red Sparrow program in the movie itself is very blunt about sex, teaching their students that they may have to give over their bodies. It’s odd, because in lesser hands in might have been more exploitive, but here it seems to hammer in the idea that this is another form of violence. I don’t know that I liked it, but I could at least see where they were going.
The biggest problem of the movie, however, is that it’s a movie set in Russian with very few Russian actors. By that I mean instead of subtitles or people speaking Russian, we get some shaky Russian accents that seem more out of a 1950’s parody movie than a movie that is asking you to take these people as credible spies. I’m all for casting actors to play against type, but at some point I’d like to hear some of these lines spoken as if they weren’t meant to be followed up with a Yakoff Smirnoff punchline.
Overall, this movie reminds me of the old Simpsons joke, “free air conditioning, with movie” in which the biggest selling point is a chance to get out of the weather. The movie isn’t terrible, but the problem is it’s not remarkable, either. It needed a good editor, and it needed a better sense of pacing, because while those twists at the end are exciting, at some points it feels like it’s not worth it.