“Red Sparrow” is a movie that never stays the same quality for very long. It’ll seem clever and intricate for a few scenes and then do something stupid. It’ll be bland and meandering for a bit and then pull out something tender or well-thought-out. I suppose that such an inconsistent film is better than a consistently bad one, but I’ll admit there were times where it would have been more convenient to write this off as a bad film and just check out. The one thing that is consistent is that this is the kind of spy thriller where Nothing Is As It Seems, so it doesn’t really pay to get invested anyway.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet whose career is cut short due to injury. She’s worried about how she’s going to be able to pay her bills, including medical costs for her sick mother (Joely Richardson), without the use of her body. Opportunity knocks in the form of her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who’s the deputy director of a Russian spy agency. He tells her that she can earn a life-sustaining income by using to body in a different way – by seducing a rich person of interest who has a thing for injured ballerinas. Without much choice, Dominika takes the mission, which doesn’t exactly go as planned. She now knows too much to be allowed to simply walk away, so she’s forced to train to be a Sparrow, a seduction-based Russian spy.
Sparrow training is ugly. If the montage we get is to be believed, it consists of 90% seduction lessons and maybe 10% everything else that goes into being a spy. The seduction training is humiliating, but Dominika is so dead inside that she progresses magnificently. She slips up when she doesn’t allow a fellow cadet to rape her, but fortunately she’s perfect for an urgent mission, so her uncle and his boss (Jeremy Irons) let it slide and send her out into the field.
Dominika’s job is to seduce American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who knows the identity of a mole inside the Russian government. She knows that Nash is smart enough to figure out that she has an uncle in Russian intelligence so she’s probably a spy, so she has to find a way to turn that to her advantage. What follows is the usual menagerie of double agents, double crosses, twists, turns, torture, and battles of wits. Dominika uses her seduction skills to get men (including her uncle, the guy isn’t as subtle a skeez as he thinks he is) to do what she wants without having sex all that often. The one sex scene she does get is with Nash, and… remember how I said that this movie will be doing okay for a while and then it will do something stupid? The terrible sex scene is astoundingly stupid. I’ll go so far as to say I may owe the “Fifty Shades” movies an apology, because it turns out sex scenes can be a lot worse than what those movies have to offer.
My advice for a movie like “Red Sparrow” is to pick a minor character and have fun speculating as to whether or not that person will live. My choice was Dominika’s roommate (Thekla Reuten), but you could easily choose her mother, an American turncoat (Mary-Louise Parker), or Jeremy Irons, who somehow manages to make his voice sound more evil than usual by adding a Russian accent. The movie does boast some good performances and a detailed, well-considered storyline, but its inherent untrustworthiness and sexually exploitative first act are troubling. Jennifer Lawrence is determined, and she ultimately saves “Red Sparrow” from being a “bad” movie, but you’re still probably better off having another go at that other movie with a color and an animal in the title: “Black Panther.”
“Red Sparrow” is rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language, and some graphic nudity. Its running time is 139 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.