Russia seems to be everywhere in the news nowadays, so why not bring it back to the cinema? After all, the Cold War was the perfect trope for Hollywood spy flicks.
"Red Sparrow" tries to — the key word here being "tries."
Plotwise, Jennifer Lawrence's latest movie does center around Russian and American intelligence and counterintelligence, but as far as entertainment value goes, it's certainly lacking compared to its forebearers.
Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a ballerina who, after a career-ending leg injury, takes a job with the Russian state department with the help of her uncle in order to pay for her sick mother's medical expenses.
Egorova becomes a sparrow, a spy trained to seduce their targets with sex and desires to get information. She is assigned to get close to a CIA agent and learn the identity of a Russian mole feeding him information, and soon finds herself wrapped up in a world of torture and double-crossing.
For what it's worth, Lawrence delivers a dedicated performance — her character, unfortunately, is trained to be stoic and emotionless, which leaves audiences with a dull lead character that's hard to get emotionally invested in. Other characters like the CIA agent Nate Nash, played by Joel Edgerton, are at least allowed a slight bit of emotion, though virtually everyone in the movie delivers their lines as if they're hooked to a polygraph and afraid of getting caught in a lie.
And as you'd might expect with a bunch of English and American actors trying to play Russians, the accents are also wildly inconsistent. Lawrence's frequently dips in and out, while Jeremy Irons as General Vladmir Korchnoi is barely trying.
The good thing about being an audience member in a thriller is that you often know things that other characters don't know, and the other characters not knowing those things is what drives the plot forward and creates suspense.
"Red Sparrow" struggles to build suspense because both sides, the Russians and the Americans, already knows everything that's going on. A secret Russian meeting — the Americans already know. The Americans planning a sting operation — the Russians already know. There are some parts in the film that cause the audience to wonder what side Egorova is working for, which is the whole point of the film.
Did she kill the guy to save the American because she's working with the Americans, or did she do it so she could build trust with the American to extract secrets because she's working with the Russians? These moments, however, are bogged down with a long, stale runtime and the typical behind-the-scenes flashback reveal at the end that feels less developed than most.
Though based on the 2013 book by the same name, the movie's relevance, given current Russian-American relations and social movements, can't go without note. In an interview, Lawrence described "Red Sparrow" as "the perfect movie" for the #MeToo movement, and while there are strong themes of the power of sexual dominance and consent, particularly with a couple of scenes and lines of dialogue, the actress' claims are exaggerated.
Egorova's body "belongs to the state," as she's told at "whore school," but she only momentarily resists that notion before embracing it because her life depends on it. As the movie drifts more into head games and cat-and-mouse chases, the sexual aspect mostly fades into one or two gratuitous sex scenes. By the end, Egorova gets her revenge and proves she's more than just a honey-pot, but to call this a guiding light for a culture shift in the awareness of sexual assault is misleading.
What the movie is is graphic, with brutal violence and pain ever-present. With the mindset that if you can't do your job, you're terminated, if someone on-screen isn't bleeding, they're being tortured.
Occasional moments of intrigue and a strong cast unfortunately can't save this movie when those moments are scattered throughout a plot devoid of suspense and that cast is producing lifeless acting. There's little entertainment value to "Red Sparrow." Instead of a thrilling story of espionage and deception, we get a movie as cold and painful as a Russian winter.