Discount Black Widow
Taping this was weirder than writing it…
I think Marvel was kicking themselves after they saw the trailer to Jennifer Lawrence’s latest spy thriller, considering just how damn similar the premise is to their very own character played by Scarlett Johansson. Though after they inevitably see the movie, it looks like they won’t have that high of a bar to surpass when their Black Widow solo film gets released; at least Marvel keeps their spy affairs simple and fun to watch after all. Red Sparrow, courtesy of Francis Lawrence (the director of all The Hunger Games sequels), is neither simple nor fun. But for fans of the original espionage novel by ex-CIA agent, Jason Matthews, this might be exactly what they wanted to hear. But I will caution my readers who would rather not read about sexual assault, because this film deals with the subject extensively. So with that warning, let’s dive into Jennifer Lawrence’s latest star vehicle.
We find our protagonist is Dominika Egorova, a ballerina living in Moscow with her ill mother and a fluctuating Russian accent courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence. After a career ending injury, Dominika gets recruited by her Uncle, and Vladimir Putin-lookalike, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) into seducing an enemy of Mother Russia. Unfortunately for her, she sees an assassination happen right before her very eyes, and is presented with a choice: work for Russian intelligence as a spy or be executed. Taking Option A in order to protect her dear mother, Dominika is then enrolled into “whore school” (movie’s words, not mine) where she is taught to be a sparrow, a Russian agent skilled in the art of seduction and getting into the pants of whatever target the government points them at. Not long after training begins for Dominika, is she then tasked with seducing American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in order to uncover a mole within the Russian government. From there, double crosses and hijinks ensue.
On paper, this sounds like a female-led version of Kingsman: The Secret Service, only taking itself a smidgen more seriously and replacing all the wacky violence with sensuality. Unfortunately, there’s nothing very sexy about this movie, as it’s pretty much chock full of rape and sexual assault instead. To the film’s credit, these scenes are not depicted in an exploitative way like films from the 1970s and 1980s would revel in. It is nonetheless hard to watch at times, but the movie doesn’t linger very much…nor does it do a decent job at capturing the post traumatic stress of going through something like that the way The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Jessica Jones handled. Instead, the film deals with the recovery of Dominika’s agency after it was so violently and unfairly stripped from her (after she is blamed for her loss, naturally).
However, this sort of a character arc is a double edged sword. It makes for a satisfying character arc, but you really need to nail what the protagonist is going through in order to get you on board with this journey. And this is where things get muddled with Dominika. See, when her accent isn’t distracting you, Lawrence commands a degree of screen presence and definitely sells you on the idea that she’s in mortal danger most of the time. But the combination of the accent dropping out here and there, and the fact the writing of Dominika isn’t particularly deep, leaves you with more of a mixed bag of a protagonist more than anything else.
Actually, let’s harp on the writing some more. While it’s slightly more coherent than say, Atomic Blonde, it lacks serious focus and more or less blunders from scene to scene as it looks for something interesting to show. In its defense, it’s busy setting up a very clever narrative twist that genuinely feels earned by movie’s end. Unfortunately, the payoff takes way too damn long to get there, partly because the damn movie is over 135 minutes and partly because you have great expanses of jack shit going on between large segments. And I won’t beat around the bush, the sexual assault scenes just made the whole affair more unpleasant and did not entreat me to the film itself. I “get” why it’s there, but I don’t think this film has anything to say about the subject of assault other than “this is bad,” which does not make for compelling viewing.
When the focus isn’t on Jennifer Lawrence, you’re entreated to a few decent performances from the likes of Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, and Jeremy Irons…even if the latter has an absurd Russian accent that’s easily distracting. Matthias Schoenaerts is really solid in this, and even features in a few of the best scenes with Lawrence. Joel Edgerton is…fine I guess. He’s presented himself way better before, but I think my lack of interest comes from the fact that he very much feels like a “Mary Sue” character on account of the fact that he’s constantly being described as a “handsome American” by about six different characters, is able to suss out Jennifer Lawrence’s character’s true identity within seconds of speaking to her, and is basically the only person who Lawrence wants to have consensual intercourse with. Did I mention this was written by an ex-CIA agent?
This is a very dry espionage flick in the mold of something more akin to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy than it is to the fun and light-hearted nature of a James Bond flick. No wild shootouts, no over-the-top car chases, and no hardcore hand-to-hand combat sequences. This is a political thriller if there ever was one, and judging by that metric…it’s fine. The verbal sparring isn’t anything to write home about, and the subject matter is just about the only thing this film has to a pulse. But I will pay this film a compliment in that it has some really solid cinematography and a good soundtrack of classical music, to set up some striking imagery. I just wish this film had utilized it for some better scenes that made me give a damn about what was happening.
Your left with a really subpar spy thriller that doesn’t really engage and just makes people feel uncomfortable without having anything interesting or at all to say about its subject matter. Having not read the book, I can’t tell you if this is a faithful adaptation or not, but for me, I have no further interest in the book or the series its based of off. I wouldn’t spend money on this in theaters, so if you think you can handle the rough imagery, then I would recommend this as a solid…
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