American Propaganda Invades a Russian Spy Thriller – Red Sparrow

First thing’s first: If you’re thinking about seeing this because of some Jennifer Lawrence nudity and eroticism, your investment will be paid off around the 45-minute mark. But if that’s all you’re looking for, wait for the DVD. If you’re looking for a taut political thriller or a spy film for the 21st century, then run, run far away. You won’t get that here.

J-Law stars as Dominika, a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Theatre. Her name is seemingly an intentional play on words, as her character is meant to take a dominant position in the Cold War-style cat-and-mouse game of espionage she unwillingly finds herself drawn into. That’s not the only thing in the film that’s laid on pretty thick. For example, if you ever forget what color Sparrow she is, just look anywhere on screen, as there is literally something red visible in 95% of the shots in the movie, including a completely obvious establishing shot with a dog wearing a red sweater sniffing around in the snow.

After Dominika’s dancing career is ended by a broken leg on stage (the surgery of which leaves a scar that’s visible only once when it’s germane to the plot), her uncle, a Russian intelligence agent, recruits her to help him spy on a member of the government who might be a traitor, and who has the hots for her. He’s murdered as he’s attempting to rape her, and Dominika is forced to join the “Sparrows,” a secret organization that trains agents to seduce international targets. Afterwards, she gets her first assignment, to track an American CIA agent who was seen contacting a mole in the Russian government in order to expose them.

On the surface, that seems like an intriguing (if not entirely compelling or original) set up for a fun spy chase. The problem is that almost none of it makes sense. By the midway point of the main plot, the layers of deception have become so lost and convoluted that any investment we had in the characters is gone. To quote Groundskeeper Willie, “It was rats within rats… which was also me dinner last night.”

Speaking of cartoon foreigners, if Jennifer Lawrence didn’t look like the most obvious Russian spy of all time, her voice would seal it. It’s not the worst Russian accent in the film, as a slew of otherwise brilliant actors like Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds butcher the tongue, and Charlotte Rampling, the “matron” of the Sparrow training school, doesn’t even try. But yeah, Lawrence’s accent is pretty laughable, especially when every character speaks perfect English. It got to the point where I was honestly wondering when she would divulge her secret plan to capture moose and squirrel.

Promotional Photo of Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow
Promotional photo of Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow

Now, per the film’s billing, there is a good deal of eroticism and graphic nudity. In fact, everything apart from Lawrence’s near-full frontal is accompanied by extreme violence and blood gore, be it implicit or explicit. The movie certainly lives up to its R-rating. But that doesn’t redeem a bad story, and even worse messaging.

The main problem with this story is that Dominika’s motivations make little to no sense. She’s a caretaker for her partially invalid mother, and her uncle recruits her (really under threat of death) by promising to take care of her mother’s medical needs. Fine. And as we see throughout, Jennifer Lawrence does not take too kindly to her stint in “whore school” as she calls it. Also fine. But here’s where it falls apart. She’s a sexual spy, but she also has high-end action fight sequences. We know she’s hot – I mean, she splays herself on a desk during “training” and orders one of her classmates to take her – God knows I’d melt on the spot. She takes to that aspect of being a Sparrow pretty naturally. But she also knows how to defend herself from attackers and fight trained killers. We never see her learn to do any of that. Apart from one scene where she jogs outside the school and sees a target shooting group across the way, her entire time training is about seduction. And it’s not like she was military or a martial artist beforehand. She was a ballerina. Her legs are nimble, but not so much that she can overpower a man twice her size and jam a knife into his throat. We get no indication of that.

Similarly, she’s executing a grand scheme to escape the intelligence game alive, with the help of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, looking like a warmed over Ricky Gervais), a CIA agent. But at no point do we see any level of resourcefulness for her to dupe literally everyone around her. In fact, both her and Nash are more notable for their easily spotted fuckups. It’s a wonder how Nash became a field agent in the first place. There’s a slight explanation for Dominika, as she’s pulled out of training for her mission despite not finishing, and Rampling pointing out that she’s disobeyed orders at every turn. So was she planning her exit strategy the moment she was recruited? Because again, we get no hint of that level of cunning, other than a pithy remark from her uncle that she “knows how to see through people,” whatever that means.

And then there’s the hypocritical jingoistic messaging throughout the film. I’m no fan of Russia by any means. For fuck’s sake, look who they helped saddle us with in the White House. But the not-so-subtle jabs of supposed American superiority are tiresome at best. It starts right from the off when Dominika is recruited. Her uncle basically says, “Have you seen a state-run hospital? There are rats in the hallways and people vomiting everywhere. Help me and I’ll pay for a good, private hospital.” So, universal healthcare is somehow bad? Got it. The mole, once revealed, indicates that he turned traitor to make Russia pay for its crimes. So you’re a patriot for betraying your country? Sure. Even the entire game between Lawrence and Edgerton is portrayed as Russian espionage bad, American espionage good. Our government is guilty of the same crimes against humanity as every other superpower (to varying degrees), but never once is America questioned the way Russian tactics are, which in its own way makes the film an utter mockery.

Also, I confess I’m not an intel expert, but what little I do know suggests that good spy work takes place over the span of years, yet the screenplay decides to keep up a fake sense of urgency by checking in/threatening Dominika every other day because she hasn’t delivered the mole yet. Edgerton himself states that it took three years to cultivate his relationship with the mole, yet Dominika’s uncle wants the name instantly? In what universe does that make any sense? Her life is on the line in this mission. Do you really think she’s going to slack off? And if you’re so good at the spy game, you have to know that a fellow spy is not going to burn a source after one night’s lay. I mean, come on! That’s just stupid.

So yeah, that’s the long and short of it. If you want your nudity and sexuality, you’ll get it. But the poorly written spy story, the misfired twist ending, and the hilariously bad Russian accents are enough to stay away. The “America, fuck yeah!” hints don’t do it any favors, either.

Grade: C

Join the conversation in the comments below! What movie should I rate next? Is Jennifer Lawrence’s naked body all you’d hoped it would be? Are you wondering if all the “hot local singles in your area” are Russian spies now? Let me know!

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