The most distinctive feeling you get after the credits roll on Red Sparrow is that it isn’t what you half-expected to see.
Billed as a spy thriller believed to be in the mould of other female-led spy thrillers like last year’s Atomic Blonde or Salt (2010), Sparrow pushes the boundaries of what spy movies have been for the past few years, and the results are a little mixed.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a ballerina who falls upon hard times and has to make difficult choices to stop her life from crashing while still caring for her ill mother, Nina Egorova (Joely Richardson).
There’s a chilling feel to the opening scenes in Sparrow as the audience bears witness to Dominika’s last performance as a ballerina before she suffers a leg break that’s horrifically graphic.
The graphic nature of her first setback sets the tone for much of the movie’s unflinching commitment to retaining the attention of the audience with shock and awe.
Dominika’s final performance runs concurrently with another unrelated scene of a CIA officer, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who gets caught meeting with a high ranking Russian asset named Marble, and blows his cover to protect his asset. While both scenes share an obvious disconnect at that moment, there’s the persistent feeling that the two will eventually cross paths in the movie.
After witnessing a brutal murder committed by Russian operatives, Dominika is recruited by her unscrupulous, creepy uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts) to work as a spy for the Russian government.
She is sent to a spy school to be trained as a Sparrow, agents that primarily exist to use seduction and sex as a weapon in spycraft, and this is where Red Sparrow takes such a hard turn.
While it’s not the first time spies in movies use sex as a weapon, this might be the first movie where they are exclusively trained to weaponise it and it is brutal to depict. Sparrow operatives don’t learn how to win hand-to-hand combats, or slide down a rope, or manoeuvre through laser fields or even how to fire a gun or catch a bullet with their teeth. All they are trained to do is how to engage in sexual exploitation with the conviction that they don’t have agency over their own bodies.
This is where the movie’s envelope-pushing dark strain comes to the fore with Dominika and her band of other recruits exposed to physical and emotional torture to prepare them as spies using sex as a weapon to extract information. Some of what goes down in Sparrow school is difficult to watch while others are just downright ugly.
Before you get carried away with the mean graphic streak that Sparrow racks up, the movie is actually about competing American and Russian interests with each side trying to get one over the other in an unending Cold War. However, this is one of the movie’s least compelling narrative.
After surviving a wince-inducing rape experience, surviving another near-rape experience, and ‘overcoming’ a mean-spirited humiliation exercise in Sparrow school, Dominika graduates into a field agent and is tasked with extracting information about Marble from Nate with her training.
Dominika’s assignment on Nash results in a cat-and-mouse game that’s sometimes as compelling as it is wretchedly uninteresting. To the movie’s credit, it’s unclear a lot of times what Dominika’s genuine motives are and Lawrence dramatises this admirably as it’s pretty tricky to figure out where her allegiances lie. Is she truly working in the interests of Russia? Is she a double agent? Or a triple agent?
Between Ivan and his superior, General Vladimir Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons), bearing down on her to deliver on her assignment; and Dominika playing her own game of espionage, the second act of Sparrow settles into a lull that sometimes feels a little bit too long and leaves the plot convoluted.
There are murder and torture scenes that are hard to watch and the movie makes sure to unapologetically dangle it as a hook to further the story every time it hits a lull.
One of the movie’s most redeeming arcs is in Dominika’s relationship with her ill mother which is genuinely warm and is the actual drive behind most of her decisions in the movie. Her self-sacrificial streak humanises her in a way the audience can get behind.
Although the movie does not completely thrill in its entire run, its hard edge turns up some pretty enjoyable moments that are refreshing to see in a spy thriller.
While Dominika does indeed have the last laugh in the end and appears to have achieved victory over all the instruments used to control her mind and body, the movie takes an overlong 139-minute route of damaging exploitation to get there.
The journey is rough in Red Sparrow but the concluding act makes up for it with some interesting turn of events that are unpredictably fascinating to watch unfold.
It’s not Atomic Blonde or Salt with spectacular stunts and world-ending stakes driving the story, but Red Sparrow is fun to watch when it goes dark, and just good enough to be tolerable in its worst moments.