Jennifer Lawrence has been the problem with some of her most recent films, for me. Since X-Men: Apocalypse and especially Passengers and with last year’s Mother, when she is on screen she literally sucks the life off the screen. Her performances have been lazy or grating and in some cases, both. For Red Sparrow, she reteams with her director for the Hunger Games films, Francis Lawrence and what starts out promising turns into a slow and unsatisfying espionage thriller. The bright spot this time around IS Jennifer Lawrence who carries this slog through its overly long 140-minute runtime.
The film stars Lawrence as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who is very popular with the people, Russian business magnates as well as the Russian government. When an “accident” ends her ballet career, she is approached by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing. He asks her to become an agent in the Russian Special Intelligence Service and he, in return, will make sure Dominika and her sick mother can stay in their apartment and continue her mother’s treatments. Up until this point, everything had been paid for by the ballet services. She reluctantly agrees and immerses herself in a world of sex, death, torture, double-crosses and for me, anyway, utter boredom.
Red Sparrow’s script was penned by Justin Haythe (based on the book by Jason Matthews), whose writing career has been hit and miss with some good films such as Revolutionary Road and some not-so-good films like 2013’s disaster The Lone Ranger (a film that has grown on me, though). Along the way he has written the screenplays for films like The Clearing with Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, Snitch starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and last year’s The Cure for Wellness. Most of these films met with varying degrees of success, but with Red Sparrow, his most ambitious script yet, Haythe swings and misses with a muddled thriller. I love a dialogue driven film but this film and its script have nothing to say.
This is a film that has way too many characters, subplots and is all over the map. Haythe’s script tries to be clever but after a while of this film going nowhere, I gave up caring. Red Sparrow is so busy trying to cover all of the bases, it forgets to be compelling and interesting. Characters are introduced and never heard from again, plot twists seem to go nowhere and by the film’s end, I just wanted it to be over with, already. Director Lawrence did such a fine job with The Hunger Games films making them fascinating, with fleshed out characters that I cared about so when the action hits the screen, it meant something. It came out a well-written script and solid acting. Red Sparrow forgets all of those elements to try too much and succeeds at very little.
As I said though, this time around Jennifer Lawrence is one of the few saving graces of Red Sparrow. It is a risky role and she gives one of her better performances in recent years. I also enjoyed Matthias Schoenaerts as the snakish Vanya. He is a fine actor who is doing some great work. But Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Joely Richardson, Ciaran Hinds and the lovely Mary-Lousie Parker are all wasted in roles that are so underdeveloped that anyone could have been in these roles. Joel Edgerton is fine as Nate Nash, a CIA operative who predictably falls for Dominika. There is a large amount of screen time devoted to these two characters but they have very little chemistry as a couple. The Hungarian locales which are supposed to Russia are put to good use with some beautiful cinematography and an excellent score by James Newton Howard are the few of the highpoints of Red Sparrow.
Red Sparrow wants to be all things. It wants to be clever, intricately interesting and mysterious but ends up being none of those things. It is a hodgepodge of much better films. But I must applaud Jennifer Lawrence for a gutsy performance. She shows what she is capable of doing when she sets her mind to a specific character. Her Russian accent is almost flawless and who knew she could be a ballerina? But the pacing, script and direction ultimately sink the laborious Red Sparrow before it takes flight. This was a real disappointment.
Red Sparrow – ** out of five
Red Sparrow – Rated R for graphic nudity, graphic violence, explicit scenes of torture and language
Red Sparrow – Runtime is 140 minutes
Red Sparrow is now playing in theaters. Check your local listings for times and locations nearest you.