Red Sparrow and all the images you see in this review are owned by 20th Century Fox
Directed by Francis Lawrence
What, were you expecting a review for Death Wish? Yeah… no. Eli Roth isn’t about to get another cent from me after the crap I went through with his LAST film, and seeing him remake an already tonally uneven film with the ham handedness that he makes all his other films is an experience I am VERY much willing to overlook and stuff down the memory hole along with everything else I’d like to forget; like Devilman Crybaby or that guy who’s occupying in the Oval Office right now where an ACTUAL President should be sitting. So that left me with this Jennifer Lawrence starring spy thriller which… I don’t know. The trailers didn’t really do enough to get me interested in the story, and I still have nightmares over the LAST time I saw Jennifer Lawrence star with uneasiness into a camera while contending with impending doom. At the very least though, it won’t be as bad as Death Wish… right? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the story of Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) who is one of Russia’s greatest ballet dancers… until… the accident! Yeah, she gets messed up REAL bad by her dance partner and can no longer dance which is DOUBLY bad because the theater company was paying for her mother’s medical expenses which means that Dominika needs to find a job and quick! The good news is that she has an uncle named Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) willing to help them out. The bad news? Her uncle is an intelligence agent AND professional Mads Michelson look alike which is clearly bad news (something you probably could have gathered by him having the most obviously evil Russian name outside of Vladimir) and he’s not about to help them out for free! Oh no, he wants Dominika to do a VERY specific and rather dangerous job; seduce a politician and switch out his phone for a bugged one. Seems simple enough right? Well… let’s just say things don’t go quite as planned and the only way for her to NOT get cut up into tiny pieces is to become a full time sex spy known as a Sparrow. She gets sent to Sparrow school which is a whole can of worms on its own, and then she gets her first assignment which is to seduce an American agent (Joel Edgerton) with the most obviously bad ass spy name NATE NASH, and find out the true identity of a mole in the Russian government that he has been working with. Can Dominika get what she needs from the American and keep her mother out of poverty in the process? Can she maintain her cover as a Sparrow even from the Americans who are keeping a sharp eye on any Russian interference (at least in this ONE instance)? Will Ivan simply let her do the job that’s asked of her, or is his motivations much more sinister than we could possibly imagine; even WITH the dude’s name being Ivan and therefore making him obviously evil!?
So before anything else, it must be said that despite the marketing showing this to be a spy film, it’s REALLY more about sex trafficking as our main character has no agency in her decision to be a spy (of the Sparrow variety or otherwise), and is under the constant threat of torture, rape, and death, if she doesn’t comply fully with her captor’s demands. Now this isn’t to say that making a movie ABOUT that kind of subject matter is a bad thing or even a particularly bad approach to take when talking about this kind of work. The problem though is that this also wants to be a spy movie, so we get what is essentially the worst kind of exploitation film awfulness (the kind that isn’t even aware of how awful it is) that is then followed up by a more traditional spy story; one that only works IF you buy into the idea that the “training” she received while at the Sparrow School was in some way beneficial to her becoming a great spy. Let alone the fact that NOTHING they were being taught there is anywhere close to EFFECTIVE sex education (you’d think they’d discussion protection and contraception at least ONCE considering how much sex they’re expected to have on the job!) or even the basics of spy work, the spy story in and of itself separated from the unfathomably dark and draining first act just lacks a sense of urgency and feels very tedious given its bloated run time. By the time we got to the meat of the story I was already prepared to write this movie off completely, and while it DID get a bit better as we were gearing up for the more traditional spy story, my small spike in enthusiasm quickly waivered and then I was stuck with a movie I already wanted to walk away from for at least another hour.
Now dark subject matter in and of itself doesn’t preclude a film from being good. It’s all about what context the awful imagery is associated with when deciding how much value there is beyond its ability to shock and offend, so what I did was try to think of a different film in which this material presented in this way could have worked to the film’s benefit and then try to see if I there were any similarities between my hypothetical movie and the one I just saw. Now I say hypothetical, but the thing is that the movie I kept coming back to when thinking of how this could have worked was Whistleblower back in 2011; a film about sex trafficking, it’s victims, and the structures across the globe (even within international peace keeping organizations) to perpetuate it. For something like this to work, I think it needs to have some sort of historical context (BASED ON A TRUE STORY if you will), be sensitive and aware to just how terrible of a situation this is, and speak about it in a straightforward and honest voice with no ulterior motive. This film fails at all three categories, so let’s go over them right now. First, the term Sparrow seems to have been used in the Soviet Union describe their Honeypots (spies who uses sex to manipulate other spies), but the thing is, as much as I tried to find ANYTHING on this, I simply cannot verify how much of what we see in the movie was remotely true during the time of the KGB and ESPECIALLY now. The most I can find to prove that these schools existed was the word of the book’s author Jason Matthews who was indeed a CIA operative, but I literally cannot find a SINGLE other source corroborating the existence of a Sparrow School; in Kazan or otherwise. COULD everything in this movie be true? I guess, but there’s no paper trail, at least one that I can find, to back up the claims made in this movie about them having to strip and perform sex acts in front of the other students, or how they had to have sex with soldiers as part of their “training”.
But you know what? Maybe I’m wrong! Maybe the author has boat loads of evidence regarding these programs, but just can’t share it with the world because they’re classified! We’ll put a pin in that one and see how this film fares elsewhere. Now to my second point, is this film sensitive and aware to just how terrible of a situation this is? Does this film put sufficient weight on the horrors they endure and provide sufficient empathy for the victims? Eh… kind of? I mean, the film is certainly aware that what’s going on is damn near inhumane, but the way this is conveyed through the framing and direction of the movie comes across as a lot more leery and exploitative; wasting no time in showing us naked bodies and giving Jennifer Lawrence an excuse to strip down. Now I’m certainly not one to be the arbiter of what’s empowering for women to do, but it’s rather gross that this film marks a milestone in her training (surpassing The Ordeal in the Joseph Campbell hero’s journey if you will) being a point where she confronts one of her rapists (because they weren’t the only one!) and DARES them to fuck her. There’s no moment in the training where we focus on her or any of the other students outside the context of training; never getting to know them or what they feel about the training whenever they aren’t under the direct supervision of Charlotte Rampling. Clearly when they were putting this movie together, it was more important to SHOW the training sequences than it was for us to see the EFFECT of it at the time; only getting scenes of her showing resentment later on in the movie. Finally, and most troublingly, is the ulterior motive with which this film is telling its story and the propaganda that it baselessly perpetuates. This is an American production starring American actors directed by an American filmmaker based on a book by a former CIA operative. That JUST SO HAPPENS to show Russians as uncaring and extraordinarily violent towards its own citizens while taking time to let American spies speechify about how much the US is better and cares more about its people. Yeah, this is some Red Dawn levels of jingoistic bullshit, only without the overtly campy nature of the material as this movie wants to be taken BRUTALLY seriously, and combining that with the VERY loose and unclear history the screenplay is working from as well as the use of sexual violence to make their point, it left with a very gross feeling by the end of the film; like when you hear NRA jerk-wads use the threat of rape to justify the silencing of any sensible discussion of gun laws or the psychological harm that such easy access to efficient killing tools (along with the stifling grip that toxic masculinity) has had on this country.
With movies like this, Annihilation, and Mother getting rather poor marks from me in the past year, I just want to reiterate that while I personally am not a BIG fan of overtly dark subject matter in film, it’s not something that will preclude a movie from getting a good score from me. A good example would be The People vs OJ Simpson which was an absolutely draining affair to sit through, but was still endlessly fascinating and worth every moment of its running time; even if I did feel terrible at the end of every episode. This right here though, is no The People vs OJ Simpson. This is a propaganda piece in the guise of a grounded spy thriller and the fact that it’s trying to use sexual exploitation and violence against women to take some cheap jabs at Russia feels like the kind of pro war crap that Hollywood was churning out during Vietnam like The Green Berets. I don’t recommend seeing this in theaters and I don’t even recommend seeing it when it gets a home release. There are better spy movies out there and there are more sensitive and intelligently crafted films about sexual violence that you could be watching instead. Heck, if you want a good Jennifer Lawrence spy film, just watch one of those X-Men movies! Those managed to be rather dark and dramatic WITHOUT having all the crap that this movie piles onto itself! IMAGINE THAT!?