Spy movies have devolved today to either acknowledging the campy movies of the past (Kingsman) or simply bringing us some over-the-top action sequences no one could possibly believe (James Bond). It’s rare that we have a calculated spy thriller like some of John le Carré’s novel adaptations, however those have been few and with a lack of commercial success it doesn’t seem we’ll be getting many more of them soon. However, Francis Lawrence decided to helm an adaptation of “Red Sparrow,” which seems to mix the precision of le Carré with the mass-appeal of blockbuster flicks.
Red Sparrow centers on the character of Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation to the director) who after an accident performing at the Moscow ballet, is recruited into the elite Russian spy program called Red Sparrow. There she is trained by a ruthless teacher (played by Charlotte Rampling) and is then set loose to seduce a CIA agent in Bucharest (played by Joel Edgerton).
The first aspect that many viewers will take from this film is that it is incredibly gory (ex. we see a man get skinned alive), but this aspect is not for the commercialization of the film as much as to show us the brutality of Dominika’s life. Moviegoers today have been so numbed by the constant show of violence on screen that something brutal is needed in order to move them in any way. It certainly makes the stakes seem higher – even though the characters are very underwritten.
Francis Lawrence gets himself an ace cast; apart from ones mentioned above, we also get such British thespians as Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds. They are however, ruefully wasted as Lawrence tasks them with speaking their lines through their best Russian accents. Jennifer Lawrence and Matthias Schoenaerts (who plays her Kremlin-connected uncle) are able to slip into their accents with more ease, but the likes of Irons or Rampling have such trouble that in some scenes they simply give up and start speaking with their British accents again. The constraint of the accent also mutes the performance from Lawrence, who has to juggle too much in order to bring her character to life.
The overlying theme of the film is seduction; there are no gunfights and barely any chases. The Red Sparrow recruits are shown to use their bodies to manipulate their assets. This might seem like a crude way of sexualizing an actress in order to sell a film, but Francis Lawrence manages to show us the true disgust that Dominika faces when having to pleasure repulsive men in order to do her job (something that might strike a note with the recent news).
But the seductive theme and gory violence can’t carry an entire spy film alone. There is a very surprising twist ending that will leave movie-goers with satisfaction, but if you take a step back and survey the story, you almost feel that with the setting, characters, and serious-tone something much more unique could have been pulled off.