Red Sparrow isn’t great in any way, but, at two hours and twenty minutes, we do get our money’s worth of old-school genre entertainment.
By Gerald Peary
There’s Donald Trump in a bizarre alliance with some Bernie Forever radicals, all denying that Russian collusion affected election 2016. The loss was purely Hillary’s fault. Otherwise, a great swath of America, conservative and liberal, are seeing Vladimir Putin’s Russia as our country’s enemy. “I can’t believe I’m now an anti-Communist,” a leftist friend of mine recently told me, who has spent a lifetime resisting Cold War rhetoric. I get it. I too boil over about today’s Russia. My two visits there have only confirmed my feeling of a crude, mean society, obstinately homophobic, and with the worst people solidly in power and endorsed by most of the citizenry.
So it’s seemingly the zeitgeist moment for the movie of Red Sparrow, based on a best-seller novel by Jason Matthews, an ex-CIA agent. It’s a retro Cold War thriller in which, just like in the Hollywood 1950s, an ensemble of western actors pretend to be Russians by speaking English with feigned Eastern Europe accents (you think Boston movie accents are wretched!). Each Russian they play is more heinous, duplicitous, murderous, than the next one.
And there’s little saving grace with the Russian protagonist, Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi dancer, played by box office star, Jennifer Lawrence. When her ballet career ends abruptly with an accident, she’s recruited to be a Russian spy because she’s got the right temperament. She’s revengeful, she’s as frozen hard as the Moscow winter. She has no human connections except her bedridden mother. And if poor mama wants to keep her free apartment, her daughter had better agree to do lots of awful things for her bedeviled country.For her fans, the wrong Jennifer Lawrence shows up here, a spy who engages in rough ugly sex and acts cruelly and violently without fluttering an eyelid. Click To Tweet
Red Sparrow isn’t great in any way, but, at two hours and twenty minutes, we do get our money’s worth of old-school genre entertainment, and with action that jumps nicely about the globe from Washington to Moscow to Budapest to London. Should you complain that the central macguffin, the obsessive search for a mole, is brazen thievery from a half-dozen John Le Carre novels? Or that the ending exchange of prisoners comes right out of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold?
There’s a fun cast including Jeremy Irons as an unhappy Russian general, a campy Charlotte Rampling as the butch instructor of the Sparrow School for young spy recruits, Mary-Louise Parker as a ditsy alcoholic US government staff intent on passing on secrets, and the fine Belgian actor, Matthias Schoenaerts, unmistakably Putin-like as Dominika’s creepy, sadistic uncle. And Jennifer Lawrence is splendid as the cool Mata-Hari lead character.
Of course, her sexually confident Dominika, whose body is bared in several scenes, couldn’t be farther afield from Lawrence’s chaste, beloved heroine in The Hunger Games trilogy. And that’s probably a reason why Red Sparrow is faltering at the theatres. For her fans, the wrong Jennifer Lawrence shows up here, a spy who engages in rough ugly sex and acts cruelly and violently without fluttering an eyelid. In fact, what might keep many people away, not just lovers of Lawrence, is having heard that Red Sparrow is needlessly vicious and bloody and replete with scenes of gratuitous torture. These people have heard right.
Gerald Peary is a retired film studies professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.