Wednesday, June 19, 2024

‘Red Sparrow’ The “Red” Means Russian…Get it?

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Red Sparrow is a lumbering slog that has no sense of time or place. Bad wigs and inconsistent accents are fine, but at close to two and half hours it begins to wear thin. If any of this was mildly interesting, or I don’t know, fun, then it would be another story.

But Red Sparrow is neither. It just is. Francis Lawrence, the director, wants desperately for us to believe we are watching a byzantine story about intrigue with a sly commentary on how women’s bodies are treated and viewed. To his credit, Jennifer Lawrence is as good an actress as any for a movie like that.

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) a famous ballerina, suffers a debilitating injury and tragically she will never dance again. The pipe organ plays to enhance the drama as we discover Dominika lives with her mother. The two live in an apartment owned by the ballet company. Her poor mother is fighting a nameless, not life-threatening but still costly, vague illness that may be terminal but it doesn’t really affect how you look, disease.

To be fair the first ten minutes of Red Sparrow are absorbing and promising. As we watch Lawrence prepare for the ballet we also see agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) carry out a meeting with an informant. The meeting goes awry but Lawrence’s leg gets broken, so it’s all parallel. Unfortunately for all involved the title card flashes on screen and then it all goes to hell.  

Strapped for cash, Dominika turns to her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts). He tells her he has a way for her to make money. There’s a top-secret government operation in which the Russians train elite covert espionage agents, called Sparrows. Supposedly these are highly skilled operatives trained in seduction, psychology, weapons, and hand to hand combat.

All Red Sparrow seems interested in though seems to be the seduction part. Francis Lawrence and his cinematographer Jo Willems have gone for a sterile emotionally removed perspective. This is intentional, as what Lawrence is trying to achieve is to take away the tendency to objectify women’s bodies in film. An admirable conceit if not for two things:

1.) I’m not entirely convinced Lawrence is successful. While Red Sparrow frames its scenes head on and as objective as possible I couldn’t help but notice the ever-present ‘from behind posterior’ shots. Add to this the notion that Lawrence, the actress, is almost utterly without agency, reacts more than acts, and every instance of her humiliation, torture, and punishment is purely sexual, and a bad taste begins to form.

2.) I applaud Francis Lawrence and Willem’s attempt at sidestepping the male gaze, but I would have preferred some kind of gaze in its place. A woman’s gaze perhaps? An hour in, I would have preferred just some type of gazing instead of the navel-gazing we’re forced to sit through.

Even if the heady subtext of trying to dissect the everyday and banal horrors of a patriarchy had succeeded we would still be stuck with the Joel Edgerton storyline. Nash is an agent who made a mistake, jumped the gun, and caused his mission to be compromised.

Nate’s superiors ground him after his botched meeting. But then Nate’s mole in the Russian regime goes silent. Of course, the only person to get the mole to surface is the great and in no way superfluous Nate Nash. Edgerton is, without a doubt, one of the sole problems of Red Sparrow. I’ve enjoyed Edgerton in other movies and am usually delighted when he shows up in a supporting role.

But he doesn’t have the presence of a leading man. Worse yet, he and Lawrence have zero chemistry. Although zero is misleading, as it implies a whole number. Red Sparrow hinges on us being engaged in whether or not Lawrence’s Dominika is playing Edgerton’s Nate; as well as believing these two are willing to risk not just their lives but their countries’ national security for each other. I’m not even convinced they would risk picking up the tab for one another much less engage in any kind of rumpy-pumpy.

In all fairness though, saying Edgerton is one of the main problems in Red Sparrow understates the real issue. Red Sparrow is a movie whose problems have problems and those problems are starting to show signs of other problems. In one instance Dominika shows up at a pool wearing a swimsuit so clearly designed by men that I laughed out loud.

Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress. But dime store wigs, and an accent I haven’t heard since two Russian spies went after our beloved moose and squirrel do more to hamper a performance than enhance it. I’ll say it, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle is not just a better spy movie but a better movie overall than Red Sparrow. I could be wrong of course, I grant you. But of the two movies I’d sooner watch the latter than the former.

The frustrating thing is, amidst all this dreck are deliciously campy performances. Charlotte Rampling as Matron, the head of the academy, seems as if she watched Ilsa and the She-Wolves before filming started. She sneers and belittles Dominika at every turn. Her voice is such a mix of venom and silk we pine for a movie that had more Sparrow and less Red.

Though we never see Dominika really do anything at the academy but get assaulted, and watch another girl almost be forced to orally please a gay man, she gets called into action. One of the top generals, Vladimir Andreievich (Jeremy Irons) thinks she shows spunk. He likes girls who show spunk. Irons is always reliable as he somehow brandishes a theatrical quality with a sublime undercurrent of vamp at every turn.

At one moment after Dominika leaves the room, Rampling’s Matron joins Irons at the table. The frame holds on the two together as they share a look before cutting away. The moment they share is more interesting and filled with more dramatic tension and promise than anything else in the movie’s infernal runtime.

Mary-Louise Parker stumbles into Red Sparrow midway through the movie and we breathe a sigh of relief. She has exactly one scene and all but walks away with the movie entirely. Her Stephanie is a chief of staff of a Senator who is being blackmailed for her lesbian affair with and by another Sparrow Anya (Sasha Frolova). Parker enters the movie drunkenly and reminds us that we should have done the same. Listening to Parker pronounce ‘vodka’ in her slurred attempt at Russian is easily a highlight of the movie.

These highlights do little to alleviate all the other issues Red Sparrow has. Like being a spy thriller set in modern day but feels like it’s taking place in the Cold War era. Right down to Nash’s agency going along with Dominika to get Stephanie to hand over the floppy disks containing state secrets. 

Even the script feels out of date. Justin Haythe adapted the script from the book of the same name written by Jason Matthews. The characters are all Soviet-era Russian stereotypes, the dialogue is bad, but only rarely laughably bad. Yes, there is a line in which Lawrence angrily mutters in her thick crunchy Kentucky laced Russian accent, “You sent me to whore school!” But lines like that are notable exceptions. Much of the time characters have nothing to say and even less to do.

When you’re watching a spy thriller and a minor character compliments the title character that they are smarter than people think they are and are always one step ahead, odds are a twist is coming. Although it’s not a twist because they’ve just advertised it. Audiences love to play along but when a movie taunts us like this, it makes us not want to.

Red Sparrow does something I didn’t think possible; it fails the Checkers Goldberg rule. A rule that simply states that any movie can be improved simply by adding Tiana Alexander’s Chinese Jewish San Franciscan cop, Checkers Goldberg. I’m afraid, even Checkers herself wouldn’t be able to save Red Sparrow. If Checkers can’t save you, then what are you even doing?

Images Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

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