Strong performances can't save this unpleasant, undercooked espionage thriller.
One moment Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is the pride of Russia. The next, she's being bundled off to "whore school". They're her words, all but spat at the shady uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) responsible, and they say plenty about Red Sparrow. She's a Bolshoi prima ballerina cut down in her prime by envious colleagues, he's a high-ranking honcho with one of the country's intelligence agencies, and their entire relationship consists of him exerting power over her with a lecherous glint in his eye and no qualms about resorting to violence. Unfortunately, this muddled and murky film is all too happy to follow his lead.
With her dancing dreams dashed and the her mother's (Joely Richardson) health insurance under threat, Dominika has little choice but to take her uncle's career advice. After agreeing to meet a suspected traitor and bearing witness to his assassination, her only option is to become a 'Sparrow' — a highly trained spy enlisted to seduce and manipulate using everything at her disposal. When she's subsequently put into the field to procure the name of a Russian mole from an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton), our heroine is quickly forced to give her new skills a workout.
Thanks to Lawrence's typically committed and uncompromising performance, Dominika possesses an indefatigable air and quite the formidable stare. But Red Sparrow isn't an ass-kicking female-driven flick in the vein of Atomic Blonde, Haywire or La Femme Nikita, or even the action spin on Black Swan that it nods to in its name. Nor is it a pulpy revenge story, an icy espionage thriller or a rousing tale of a victimised woman using her feminine wiles not only to survive, but to bring down the system that's stacked against her. Based on a novel by retired CIA operative Jason Matthews and directed by three-time Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence (no relation), the film is simply a routine array of predictable twists packaged with a particularly problematic approach.
Specifically, there's nothing empowering or entertaining about a movie that constantly wears its heroine down just because it can. Red Sparrow tries to frame its treatment of its protagonist as an example of an entire country's corruption ("your body belongs to the State!" Dominika is told in one of the film's more blatant moments), but that rationalisation fails to convince. At the same time, the screenplay touches briefly on themes ranging from toxic sexual politics to the treatment of women in the workplace, but that social commentary falls flat as well. It's hard to take seriously any statement on the objectification and exploitation of women when your female protagonist spends most of the movie being raped, beaten, pushed around and bled dry, often while naked or close to it. Frequently, it feels like Red Sparrow is putting Lawrence in the same situation as Dominika, using her for the audience's gratification.
Still, Red Sparrow does have some saving graces — all of which come courtesy of the film's stacked supporting cast. There's Charlotte Rampling as Dominika's no-nonsense trainer, Jeremy Irons as a slippery Russian general and Mary-Louise Parker doing some excellent drunk acting. A better movie could be made about any of their characters, and mightn't need to include cringeworthy dialogue like "the West has gone weak, drunk on shopping and social media!" As we see demonstrated again and again, that kind of overcooked writing really does speak volumes about this troublesome film.