Directed by: Francis Lawrence/2018
Before the film Red Sparrow has even come out, there is a lot of outcry against it based on those who are fans of Marvel’s character, Black Widow, who believe the very premise of this new film is actually of her backstory. As a result, there has been a lot of anger directed at Jennifer Lawrence for doing the (supposed) Black Widow backstory, and not Scarlett Johansson, who plays Black Widow in the Marvel films. I can reassure fans of Marvel, that they can rest easy. Not only is Black Widow getting her own movie, finally, but this Red Sparrow film is not that backstory.
Originally the first book in a trilogy of books by ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews (not the Houston based country singer-though it did win the Edgar award), “Red Sparrow” looks at the Russian intelligence agency-based school for assassins. There, future agents are taught to hone their lethal and clandestine skills, but also to learn the art of seduction, being whatever your target needs you to be. This involves highly developed intuition, to perceive a person’s truest essence, and anticipate what they truly want so as to manipulate them to whatever ends suites mother Russia’s needs.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Bolshoi ballerina, who is dancing not only because it is her passion, but because it allows her to care for her ailing mother following her father’s death years ago. Her uncle, Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), is a part of Russian intelligence and following Dominika’s tragic accident that costs her the position with the Bolshoi, he blackmails her into joining the “Red Sparrow” school in exchange for the continued care of her mother. She is promised that if she messes up, she’ll get a bullet in her head.
On the other side is American CIA operative Nathaniel (Nate) Nash, played by Joel Edgerton. He has just been sent back stateside after blowing his cover and bringing attention to himself to protect a Russian source that has been feeding him information. With Nate grounded in Langley, the source has gone underground, refusing to speak to any other American operative. Nate wants back in, just to make contact with the source before Vanya, and his superior, General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons), track him down. Soon, Dominika is deployed to work her skills on Nate Nash and expose the Russian mole, while Nash tries to use his skills to turn her into the latest Russian asset working for the CIA.
While Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s backstory involves a similar story of being a ballerina who is later trained as an assassin, Black Widow’s ballerina beginnings was the result of false memories being implanted into her (a practice done to all such agents in the comic story she comes from), which she learns is a lie. This turns her into the flipped agent that eventually works for S.H.I.E.L.D., becoming action-star Black Widow that we know from the screen in the MCU.
Red Sparrow, is not an action film at all. This isn’t Atomic Blonde, Salt, or….Black Widow. It is, as the director describes, a hard-R rated film filled with espionage, violence, seduction, perversity, torture, and political calculations based on the knowledge the book’s author has of this world, that has been adapted by screenwriter Justin Haythe. It will not involve multiple aerial round-house full body contortions and kicks of multiple bad guys by a woman in a leather catsuit. That you will see in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, its sequel next year, and the proposed 2020 Black Widow solo film.
Red Sparrow has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, and Lawrence and Edgerton are a good combination when squaring off. Jeremy Irons is always a welcomed presence, especially when he is not tied down to being just a side character in the soul-sucking Justice League films. Unfortunately, we don’t see as much of him as we would like, but its enough to remind us how good and entertaining of an actor he truly is. Also, a strong supporting cast shows up including Joely Richardson, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, and Mary-Louise Parker.
Francis Lawrence, who has built up enough trust with Jennifer Lawrence across his three Hunger Games films, illicits her most physically revealing role yet that will definitely be scrutinized in the current sexual climate happening in Hollywood, in particular, and society as a whole. The whole notion of the “Red Sparrow” school is referred to in the film as “slut school”, exposing how an immoral government sacrificed mostly their young woman, in name of country and patriotism.
Of course, through films like the James Bond series, this charge has been leveled before. The James Bond films, often have glorified this aspect of the “job” as a means to celebrating Bond’s sexual conquests over women. It is much more jarring to see Lawrence’s portrayal here, as she fights to protect that part of herself, only to have to make the choice to succumb to the pressures placed upon her to do so because of her orders, or face the penalty her uncle shared with her of taking a bullet to her head. There is no glorification of these choices here.
Red Sparrow will entertain you down to the last frame, and prepare you for possible sequels that will correspond to the other two books by Jason Matthews that revolve around these characters. The level of violence, torture, nudity, and suspense might chase some people away, but it shouldn’t chase away anyone who are fans of Black Widow. That character, and her backstory, are still intact, awaiting her future film. In the meantime, if you are wanting a CIA vs. Russia spy thriller, Red Sparrow is a film for you.