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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Review: RED SPARROW produces evaporative, paper-thin entertainment

There's something about the spy genre that just feels utterly beggared beyond belief, which is a pretty unbelievable statement given how saturated we are with superhero films in the currently cinematic landscape. Perhaps that's something in error to say...it may be more accurate to say that I just don't really see the appeal of these kinds of efforts, often the subject of pharmacy bookracks written by the likes of Tom Clancy and Brad Thor. 

Frankly, the spy thriller works in one of two ways, when it's presented through the larger than life, and cartoonish glee of the Bond franchise (and sometimes not even then) or when it's a grittily composed study like the current wonderful FX series, The Americans. Everything in between tends to fall through the cracks and feels like relics of the early 90's. It's the Joe Weisberg showrun series that's of particular interest to me as I ponder the new collaboration between Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), which reunites this Hunger Games team for a spy-game that shares some DNA with one of tv's premiere dramas.

Red Sparrow targets most of its interest in the current Russia vs USA zeitgeist that has captured the airwaves over the past year or more. Regardless of the level of Russian cyberwarfare and plotting that may or may not be occurring in real life, Red Sparrow firmly plants itself right into that renewed real-world antagonism that hasn't felt this abjectly solid since mid-80's and the final throes of the Cold War. In the Russia of Red Sparrow's universe, it's a conflict that has never truly ended, as former ballerina - thanks to a seemingly tragic on-stage mishap - turned "Red Sparrow" - thanks to a high-ranking uncle in KGB, Dominika (Lawrence) comes to understand. She is immediately thrust into an undercover mission that sacrifices not only her safety, but also a piece of the self she once was after being violently assaulted by her uncle's intended target.

As she no longer has the ability to dance, and must find a way to keep her mother with special needs in the security of a home, she agrees to attend a training camp that puts these Sparrows through literal hell. She eventually graduates, gets assigned to a detail, which is of course a handsome CIA operative (Joel Edgerton), she's conflicted, blah blah blah...you see where this is going, right? Red Sparrow, despite moving a pretty effusive pace for most of (MOST) its running time thanks to (Francis) Lawrence's adept hand behind the camera, really doesn't provide a whole lot that you probably haven't seen before. And once the credits roll, its twists and turns will fade from your memory just as quickly as it came to you. An hour after I left the theater I couldn't remember one character's name, and various motivations completely left me behind.

The only two times Red Sparrow really comes to life is during Dominika's stretches of training and coming to the understanding that her body, much like her loyalty belongs to Mother Russia. It's a weird feeling watching these scenes unfold, as a sense of discomfort rolls over you the first time she's raped, and then stripped bare in front of her classmates, and then almost raped again...but the script does an adequate job of turning those heinous moments on their head, and in turn our protagonist utilizes what was once an area of vulnerability into a honed weapon. No man is ever going to touch again unless she wills it, and usually when she does it's with the purpose of the mission in mind. It's a really tough line to skate, and I've seen a number of other critics (women particularly) who have absolutely hated everything about how this film treats sexual assault. It's really up to the tolerance of the viewer to know where their limits are.

The other truly sublime stretch of the film is when Mary Louise Parker makes a surprise appearance as a Chief of Staff for a U.S. Senator, a CoS who also happens to be on the take and deeply under the influence of the KGB. Parker is funny, pretty boozy, and almost seems like she's in a completely different film than the rest of the cast, but injects some deeply needed energy in the slowly growing lethargic second half just before the film totally gets away from Lawrence and crew.

Everything in between and after those two points of interest are fine at best, a total drag at worst. Red Sparrow is 100% not the film the trailers are selling you on, go ahead and put all these Black Widow comparisons out of your mind, but it's also worth noting that the film's moments of deeper introspection are really just all gloss. The shifting of Dominika's personality doesn't really land with any of the same weight that poor Phillip and Elizabeth have experienced on that aforementioned FX masterpiece, and other than trying to play with some current policy chess pieces, it doesn't really have much to say about Russian-US relations either. It's just a movie that exists in a fairly bland...yet also not inoffensive fashion. It's a strange effort and one that isn't really worth your movie ticket dollar.

Also, if I see a couple less believable than Lawrence and Edgerton this year, I'll be stunned.

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