Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow review by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Upon leaving the theater, our own Captain HE gave the film a "nine out of ten" and later added in writing: "Riveting, well-acted, thoroughly entertaining with a fabulous cast. Here is a movie that does not rely on digital enhancements to carry a story. Jennifer Lawrence is formidable. Please try not to think of any parallels relating to current U.S. political situations. TRY!"

When retired CIA operations director Jason Matthews wrote Red Sparrow and its follow-up books, Palace of Treason and The Kremlin's Candidate, he either knew some things before the rest of us did, or he was damn lucky in choosing the experiences he decided to fictionalize out of his 33-year career.  The CIA, of course, had to approve the book and the script, and they loved it, as described here:  The film seems like the script from the Robert Mueller investigation, and despite its "R" rating, the storyline and the fact that it stars Jennifer Lawrence and an amazing cast, its popularity should be through the roof.  Strangely, whereas most American films do much better in the US than they do overseas; Red Sparrow's foreign box office amounts to nearly twice its American earnings, even beating out Black Panther in some markets.  It is a strange scenario, but more on that later, now for the film:

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina for the Bolshoi, famed and thus supported by the ballet company and the government.  During a performance one night, her male lead trips, falling on her with his full weight, shattering her leg. Her career ended, she is about to lose both her apartment and medical coverage, which assists her chronically ill mother (Joely Richardson).  Enter Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), an administrator in the Russian intelligence service who makes her an unsavory offer. She’s to serve as a honey trap for a man of interest, an abhorrent offer to her, but she has no choice.  Vanya has other, more sinister plans, though, and the plan turns violent and bloody and forces her deeper into his clutches.

Cut to a dark and foggy park, and CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is about to make an exchange with a Russian double agent, known only as Marble.  Unfortunately for them, the police unwittingly stumble upon their transaction.  Nate has to beat feet, scrambling frantically to the border where he has to ram through guards and leap into the American sector, his cover blown.  He is led to the offices of his handlers (played by a grim Sakina Jaffrey and a wry, amused Bill Camp) where he pleads for another chance.

Thus begins a double narrative: as Nate struggles to get back to the field, Dominika is "recruited" to enter Sparrow school where she will learn both world-class espionage and prostitution. Sparrow school students are uniformly young, physically strong, and beautiful.  Their curriculum is overseen by grim academy supervised by a severe Matron (Charlotte Rampling).  It is here where politically correct critics have taken issue as Dominika endures the extremes of punishment and degradation, but it is here where their myopic viewpoint becomes blurred.  The extremes to which Dominika is subjected become the springboard from which she takes control of her fate through sheer force of will and her nascent gifts—athleticism, intelligence, a brutal nature, and a preternatural gift of reading people's intentions.  She is well aware that she is a woman in a man’s world, but she doesn't beg sentimentality--even though Dominika is sentimental about her mother.  Matron certainly isn't sentimental; she dislikes Dominika's independent will, but she acknowledges her talent, and soon the former prima ballerina is sent into the field.

Vanya meets with his superior, Zakharov (Ciaran Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons) and decide to send Dominika as a honey trap to entice Nash into revealing the identity of Marble.  Here, the narratives of Domenika and Nate combine and intertwine; we become witnesses to manipulation and double-crosses, games both are playing that we see but do not fully understand until all elements come together in surprising and satisfying fashion.

Red Sparrow is a blend of the Bourne films and John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, much better than the fun but mindless Atomic Blonde.  Although it has action, it is not an action film. Rather, it is an old-fashioned spy film with intrigue that keeps the audience thinking, guessing, and on its toes through its full 2:20 runtime.  In other words, it predictable doesn't play well to many of the clickbait critics that infest Rotten Tomatoes.  Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) has not made a classic, but Red Sparrow is a damned good film.  Beautifully shot in Budapest, Vienna, and London, with a superior international cast that includes, in addition to those already mentioned, Mary-Louise Parker as another intrigue-peddler and Sergei Polunin as the Bolshoi male lead.  The romantic chemistry between Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Lawrence isn't there, but it might be even better that Matthias Schoenaerts' lascivious Uncle Vanya does spark with Dominika, a perversion that fits in with the whole seamy world of espionage.

And of course, there is Jennifer Lawrence.  You've heard us extol her talents loudly and often; allow Manolha Dargis, film critic of the New York Times to describe the actress's contributions better that we can:
"As she does, Ms. Lawrence goes all in, seamlessly meeting the movie’s physical demands — whether she’s dancing onstage or crawling in blood — while turning Dominika into a character who grows more real with each unreal scene. ...  It helps that Ms. Lawrence, like all great stars, can slip into a role as if sliding into another skin, unburdened by hesitation or self-doubt. Craft and charm are part of what she brings to this role, as well as a serviceable accent, but it’s her absolute ease and certainty that carry you through “Red Sparrow.” She was born to screen stardom, and it’s a blast to see where it’s taking her."

Unfortunately, it may not take her into the further exploits of Dominika Egorova.  In addition to the aforementioned critical obstacles others, some willful, some mere fate, have stood in its way.  Fate intervened when Red Sparrow's release put it up against the Black Panther juggernaut.  It didn't help that we are currently in a time when people are most sensitive about violence against women, despite the fact that RS is based on real-world events, and it shows its protagonist, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) overcoming her plight and turning the table on the patriarchy (much like Lisbeth Salander did in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  But those hurdles are matters of bad timing.  Willful human intervention created a perfect storm of opposition against Red Sparrow: First, on RS's opening weekend, the online ticketing hub MoviePass blocked subscriber's from purchasing tickets and still have offered no explanation. Still, film studios don't care about reasons or excuses, and they don't care how great a movie is or that it is headed toward $100 million overseas; their only concern is the domestic bottom line.

Still and with all, we heartily recommend Red Sparrow.  Our group loved it, so we will end with a comment from our own Serfing Dude, who left the showing calling it the best film we had seen in a while (and that included Black Panther and Annihilation): "It was better than I expected and I did anticipate it to be better than some of the critics were saying. It kept me guessing throughout and allowed for some clever surprises. It was an intriguing look at the spy game and given the present issues concerning Russia in the geopolitical realm, a very pertinent movie. The cast was outstanding, led by J-Law."
8.5 out of 10 for Artistic and Entertainment merit.


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