Red SparrowReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/01/18 15:17:20
(Worth A Look)
I have a sneaky suspicion that many of those who flock to “Red Sparrow” in its first few days of release will be expecting something along the lines of “Salt” or “Atomic Blonde”—an action-packed espionage thriller featuring an enormously popular actress kicking all sorts of ass in a number of wild set pieces determined to equal or top the excesses found in the James Bond and Jason Bourne franchises. However, those attending the film on the promise of pure spectacle alone are likely to come away from it disappointed because while it certainly doesn’t skimp in terms of big action beats, the focus here is primarily trained on the kind of intriguing characters and intricate plotting normally found in the books of John Le Carre and the espionage dramas of Alfred Hitchcock. The result is an occasionally uneven but generally successful stab at the kind of spy narrative that kind of got put to the side, at least cinematically, by the success of the Bond films and which now comes across like a breath of fresh, if sometimes confused, air in the way that it comes across as both a throwback to a time when popular entertainment was allowed to be a little cerebral and as an eerily up-to-the-minute take on what is happening in the world today.Based on the first of a trio of best-selling novels by Jason Matthews, the film opens in Moscow by cutting between the stories of two characters who have never met but whose lives will soon become entwined as part of the result of the separate events on one fateful night. Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a top ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet who is performing before the A-List of Russia when she suffers a gruesome injury that instantly puts an end to her promising career. Meanwhile, in Gorky Park, CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is about to meet with the high-placed mole supplying him with key information when he panics at the sight of what turns out to be a couple of narcotics cops and causes an incident that allows the mole to slip away but which attracts the unwanted attention of the authorities. For Nate, what happens next is simple enough—he is pulled out of Russia by his superiors and faces punishment for his screw-up. For Dominika, things are a little more complex—her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), who is a high-ranking member of the SVR intelligence agency, shows up at the flat she shares with her sickly mother (Joely Richardson), with proof that her accident was, in fact, deliberate. Channeling the determination that clearly fueled her dancing, she takes matters into her own hands and gets grisly revenge on those who did her wrong.
As satisfying as that is, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Dominika and her mother are about to lose their Bolshoi-controlled apartment and health insurance and it is now that Ivan, having seen what his niece is capable of doing, makes her an offer that she cannot refuse. She is to track down a rich and sleazy businessman, who has already made a lecherous pass at her, at a luxurious hotel, go up with him to his suite and. . . well, you know. . . and in exchange, he will make sure that she and her mother continue to be taken care of. Things go sideways, she sees something that she was not supposed to see and now she has been given another choice—be killed or undergo training at a state facility to become a Sparrow—essentially a deadly prostitute educated in any number of ways to psychologically and sexually manipulate targets into giving up key information without even realizing it. (It probably goes without saying that the head of this facility is played by none other than Charlotte Rampling.) In the strictest sense, she is not the best student (a problem when the people in charge go to extremes to keep the student numbers down) but while she hates what she is being forced to do, it nevertheless sparks something in her and when the headmistress tries to break her down by ordering her to have sex in front of the entire class with the fellow student tried (and decidedly failed) to rape her, she turns the psychological tables on him to such an extent that he is unable to perform at all.
Meanwhile, that mole has completely disappeared off the grid and the CIA reluctantly elects to reinstate Nash and send him to Budapest in the hopes of reestablishing contact with them. Knowing that he has been sent to coax out the mole, Dominika’s superiors send her to Budapest so that she can discover his identity by deploying her skills on Nash. The twist here is that both Dominika and Nash pretty much know exactly what each other is up to, which cuts down on the usual nonsense about which one is using the other and whether their professional alliances will be affected by the spark that seems to have developed between them. How the story develops from this point is best left undiscovered for now but suffice it to say, Dominika’s hunt for the identity of the mole leads to a number of shifting alliances—at one point, she even aids Nash and his associates in their attempts to nab an American political operative (Mary Louise Parker) attempting to sell information—grisly tortures, double (and higher) crosses and questions about who is really pulling the increasingly complicated array of strings on display.
At least I think that is what happens, though I am not entirely sure that I could pass a pop quiz regarding the increasingly myriad plot details. As a rule, I tend to resent it when a screenplay tries to pull the rug out from under viewers in practically every scene—if I recognize that everything I know about any given scene is only going to be reversed ten minutes later, why should I work up any interest in it at all? “Red Sparrow,” on the other hand, never quite falls into that trap for a couple of reasons. For one, screenwriter Justin Haythe has two strong throughlines—Dominika’s need to learn the identity of the mole and her attempts to survive and perhaps even triumph in her new circumstances—that serve as a base for the more elaborate plot lucubrations that viewers are able to hold on to throughout to keep from getting overwhelmed. Actually, the convolutions do help us in relating to Dominika and her attempts to carry out and survive her mission—she is oftentimes just as confused as we are as to what is going on when she enters a new situation and watching her trying to figure out and execute the right play on the fly generates a welcome sense of the sort of genuine tension that you rarely find in even the best Bond films. Director Francis Lawrence, best known for his collaborations with Lawrence on the last three “Hunger Games” films, keeps things moving along in a sleek, stylish and exciting manner (the previously mentioned opening sequence is pretty fantastic and the set-piece with the Mary Louise Parker character generates a lot a real suspense despite only involving a handful of people and a couple of hotel rooms) without getting too bogged down in plot minutiae or overly complicated action sequences.
However, for all of the plot details and developments, “Red Sparrow” is a film that pretty much lives or dies on the basis of the performance by Jennifer Lawrence and it turns out to be yet another standout turn from one of the more remarkable young American actresses working today. When we first hear here bust out her Russian intonations, it does sound a bit goofy, as is the case whenever a well-known star busts out an unfamiliar accent. However, before too long, the shock of the unusual voice dissipates and attention instead turns to the her strong and focused performance and how she always manages to engender sympathy from the audience even though we are never entirely certain of where her true sympathies may actually lay. She is capable and convincing in her action moves, of course (double duty in the “Hunger Games” and “X-Men” franchises will do that), but she is even more impressive in the way that she conveys her characters intelligence, cunning and resourcefulness to such and extent that the scenes in which she has to think her way out of a situation are more thrilling that the ones that require her to fight. She also gets to bounce off of a strong and effective supporting cast with the standouts including the always reliable Rampling and Jeremy Irons in a seemingly superfluous role as a party bigwig who has a number of concerns about Dominika and her loyalties.As I said, anyone going into “Red Sparrow” expecting nothing more than wall-to-wall action and thrills may come away from it disappointed and I have a sneaky suspicion that the word-of-mouth for it, while perhaps not as devastating as it was for Lawrence’s last movie, “mother!,” will not do it any favors. And yet, while it is far from flawless—there are some lulls in the storytelling and at 139 minutes, it does run a little long. However, as a defiantly old-fashioned spy narrative, an occasionally bracing examination of gender politics following one woman quietly decimating the patriarchal order that has essentially forced her to become a whore and as a showcase for another strong performance by Jennifer Lawrence, it is enough of a success that I hope that it does well enough to give the green light to screen adaptation of the other two books in the trilogy. Just bring back Charlotte Rampling—that’s all I ask.
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