There have been so many aspirational examples of action-packed spy thrillers with a strong female in the last few years. Just in the last 12 months, Atomic Blonde pitted Charlize Theron against enemy after enemy and gave us one of the best fight scenes of 2017. Salt is another strong espionage film, having you second guess who Angelina Jolie’s undercover agent was really working for. With Jennifer Lawrence, the highest paid movie star in the world, at the helm of this film the expectations are high, and it does not deliver.
The story centres around Lawrence’s Dominika, an ex-ballet dancer for the Bolshoi who, through manipulation and blackmail, ends up working for the government as a ‘tool of seduction’, able to extract information from targets using her charms and, ahem, other talents. The story progresses and Dominika finds herself deeper and deeper in situations that are expected to end in a kick-ass scene and Lawrence totally dominating. That never comes; the closest you see her owning the screen is fairly early in the film as a reaction to sheer jealousy and betrayal. Apart from that, Dominika is so bland and blank as a character that can easily turn off audiences. We’ve come to expect a spark from Lawrence’s roles, a flare of rebellion and control that women are so easily left out of in blockbuster films, and that spark is well and truly not there in Red Sparrow.
The entire film is pretty bleak, fairly uninteresting and extremely raw in it’s approach to nudity, torture and violence. For a 15, it’s extremely bloody and depicts some very clear images of gore that just isn’t enjoyable. The more the film progresses, the less your shocked. The story being set in Russia eases that feeling ever so slightly too, but it’s still unnerving to see someone’s skin being peeled off deeper and deeper as if you’re dicing carrots for dinner. There are some moments that remedy this because of the rawness (odd to say, but seeing male full-frontal nudity as a counterpoint to the female nudity is a small yes for equality), but it’s not enough to justify the sheer brutality towards the main protagonist. Director Francis Lawrence, who worked on 3 Hunger Games films with Jennifer Lawrence, doesn’t use any nuance in his approach here, opting for hard-hitting scenes and less about real character development. There’s some incredible talent in this film, including Joel Edgerton, Ciaràn Hinds and Charlotte Rampling; save for some dodgy Russian accents, they pull the story together and give it some sense of enjoyment. It’s hard to overcome a less than satisfactory script, so these enjoyable performances just about took me through the 2 hour 35 minute run-time.
The combination of spies, sex and Russia make you think ‘foolproof’, except Red Sparrow shows us otherwise that that isn’t true. It could have possibly engaged more as a mini-series, unfolding each of its acts over a couple of hours and letting you grow with these characters. The run-timeand the story make it feel like a slog to the finish, one where a so called ‘twist’ doesn’t even make up for your investment. After Red Sparrow, Lawrence needs to think about her next project and how that reflects on audiences that have connected with her fire over the last few years.