The foul and flightless Red Sparrow is the seventh feature film from former music video director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend; Water for Elephants; the last three Hunger Games movies), and the seventh unremarkably bad one to boot. It’s like Lawrence was created in a laboratory by mad scientists who needed to provide content for Crackle.
A witless teenage sex fantasy dressed in the solemn tones of a John Le Carré-inspired spy movie, Red Sparrow stars Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury during a performance. Three months after the accident, Dominika is recovering, but she worries about providing care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). Desperate for work, she takes a mysterious assignment from her shady Uncle Vanya (don’t get excited, Chekhov fans, it’s not anything), an ethically challenged Russian spy played by the always expressionless Matthias Schoenaerts.
The assignment turns out to be an assassination attempt, with Dominika used as unwitting bait, and receiving a horrifying baptism in blood for her troubles. After witnessing the state-sponsored murder, Dominika is given a choice: get murdered, or train to become a Red Sparrow, a superspy schooled in the art of merciless and self-denying seduction. Dominika dismisses the training as “whore school,” but her toughness quickly attracts the attention of her teacher (Charlotte Gainsbourg, better than this dreck deserves) and a high-ranking general (Jeremy Irons, exactly what this dreck deserves).
They send Dominika on a new assignment: shadow and seduce American spy Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), then discover the identity of the Russian mole that Nash blew his cover by protecting. The stuff about Dominika’s rerouted ballerina career and the Sparrow school is far-fetched and juvenile, but it’s compelling enough movie trash. However, there’s no reason (other than the usual sexism) to spend so much time on Nate’s storyline, which is given equal weight with Dominika’s narrative even though they don’t dovetail until the second half.
As a result, the film offers two undeveloped halves rather than a fully developed whole, and the overemphasis on fleshing out a nothing character like Nate prevents us from becoming fully invested in Dominika’s dangerous journey. Of course, it doesn’t help that Edgerton is distant and stiff and lacks any chemistry with Lawrence, but even with a stronger actor in the role, the back-and-forth story structure would still undermine the suspense.
Along with Passengers and mother!, Red Sparrow feels like the third wedge in an unofficial trilogy about awful males abusing Jennifer Lawrence (whereas Joy only abused the audience). Red Sparrow reteams Lawrence with the director who siphoned away all her charisma over the course of three Hunger Games films, and he still proves utterly graceless with actors. The contemporary setting of Red Sparrow at least allows a respite from the tacky CGI that usually overwhelms Francis Lawrence’s films, but it only gives us more time to focus on his clunky storytelling skills and inability to sustain tension.