A Russian ballerina thrust into the world of spies, an American mole in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) and a secret romance between agents on opposing sides — these are all the components that make a heart-pounding thriller filled with sex, murder, secrets and betrayal (e.g. “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” or “Casino Royale”). And while “Red Sparrow” has an overabundance of these, it’s severely lacking in any tension or meaningful plot that’s engaging enough to deliver as a “heart-pounding thriller.”
Its premise is promising enough: Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina played by Jennifer Lawrence, becomes an asset for the SVR to support her bedridden mother (Joely Richardson) following an accident that irreversibly damaged her leg. With the success of the self-aware, meta “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” which poked fun at many of the worn-out tropes of popular spy flicks, “Red Sparrow” offered a back-to-basics spy film; if done correctly, a film like “Red Sparrow” could have been a showcase of the timelessness of these tropes which, in spite of how dated they are, can still be solid components of an enjoyable film.
Unfortunately, “Red Sparrow” falls short of accomplishing any of this, and instead falls victim to the predictability of so many of its predecessors. The unconvincing Russian accents, which Lawrence struggles to maintain throughout the film, and unrealistically inhumane Russian politicians who simply hate America, with no clear purpose other than furthering the movie’s Cold War-era anti-Russian sentiments, make this film’s immersive qualities non-existent. And this isn’t even taking the incredibly predictable plot into account. In fact, the story of this film is so uneventful that, in a spy thriller which should be filled with plot twists and surprises, I always felt one step ahead of what happened on screen.
Adding on to this, the plot feels unnecessarily complicated. For one, without delving too deeply into spoilers, we witness Egorova commit a very brutal and gruesome act of violence within the first 20 minutes of the film; on its own, this scene is fine because it leaves the viewer with questions regarding Egorova, who up until this point has only been portrayed as a beautiful and innocent dancer. The audience begins to question if her behavior was a result of her desperation following the accident or whether this is simply her true nature, setting Egorova up as dark, damaged and complex character.
However, this all goes out the window very quickly when she becomes an SVR asset and carries out her first mission. Egorova, whom we witnessed beating a man half to death no more than 20 minutes ago, is now visibly traumatized and shaken from the sight of a murder. So, adding on to the fact that the prior incident is never even addressed, it serves no purpose other than to increase the film’s already lengthy runtime of over two hours.
The film’s shaky plot and confusing character logic become very apparent in the segment following its character introductions. The segment itself is not without merit, setting Egorova up to go to Russian spy boot camp in order to hone her skills in acting and seduction. Overall, this entire premise is very similar to the training flashbacks experienced by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys’ characters in FX’s fantastic KGB drama “The Americans.” However, unlike “The Americans,” “Red Sparrow” throws out any insight into the grueling emotional process that is inherent with the training of intelligence officers. What made Russell’s performance in “The Americans” simultaneously enthralling and hard to watch was that it allowed the audience to actively engage with in her experiences and emotions. Russell’s character, who prides herself on her strength and independence, must degrade herself to what is essentially a sex object in order to survive her training and become a stronger person. It’s a striking contradiction but it’s pieced together so well that it really offers an explanation on what formed the mindset of her character.
This is the exact opposite of what “Red Sparrow” offers in its training segments. Throughout her training, Dominika refuses to bend to the will of any commanding officer, disobeying most of the direct orders given to her. This is the film’s attempt at establishing Dominika’s strength and will, which very quickly falls flat because rather than being a character with incredible resolve, Dominika comes across as someone too prideful to sacrifice dignity in order to survive. Add on top of this the fact that she is approved for field duty despite showing little to no conformity or obedience, and the film becomes even harder to believe.
All of “Red Sparrow’”s flaws, from its one-dimensional characters to cookie-cutter plot, could have been forgiven if they were components of a film that was greater than the sum of its parts, a blockbuster flick that, while not being the most intellectual film, was still enjoyable to watch. But what detriments this film the most and really puts the final nail in coffin, is that it’s simply boring. As mentioned previously, the movie is over two hours long, which combined with the film’s incredibly slow pacing, leaves viewers counting every minute that passes by.
Verdict: “Red Sparrow” has all the right components of what could be a great movie. However, its predictable writing, mediocre acting and dull pacing make it the film equivalent of a Lego set that was built without reading the instructions.