Movie review: Red Sparrow flutters but never quite lands

Despite an excellent performance, Jennifer Lawrence can’t save the convoluted plot of Red Sparrow. Courtesy Warne Bros. Despite an excellent performance, Jennifer Lawrence can’t save the convoluted plot of Red Sparrow. Courtesy Warne Bros.

In Red Sparrow, a fallen Russian ballerina (Jennifer Lawrence) is given an impossible choice—to sacrifice her free will and dignity for her country by becoming a “sparrow” trained in the art of exploiting the sexual vulnerabilities of her targets, or lose the apartment and medical coverage provided by the Bolshoi. That is, until the plot pivots to East-versus-West spy games in Hungary, a game of competing allegiances, leaving us not quite sure who is fooling whom. Then it’s about a mole at the top of the Russian security apparatus who goes into hiding to avoid detection. Then it’s about floppy disks, then torture, then some more torture, then a lot more torture.

These threads all come together eventually, but the experience of watching Red Sparrow is like hearing a shaggy dog story where you’ve heard the punchline but are forced to hear the whole thing out anyway. If you’ve ever seen any spy or mystery movie, you’ll guess the twist about 45 minutes before the film gets around to telling you what you already know, leaving you mystified by all this hullabaloo about bank accounts and pervy bosses that make up most of the second act but are only tangentially related to the finale.

Red Sparrow
R, 140 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema

Making matters worse is the complete disconnect between how this is all set up and where it goes. What seem to be crucial story and character moments for the first hour are basically forgotten once the next plot thread starts. Dominika’s ballerina past is commented on at various points, but is basically irrelevant, and this would have been exactly the same movie without it. Her first mission sees her brutalized, essentially as a way to break down her will and agree to become a sparrow. Her sparrow training is all about seeing and utilizing people’s sexual vulnerabilities, but she mostly does regular spy stuff, like Jason Bourne with less punching, so why even go through it all? The torture scenes—yes, plural—come from nowhere, stay too long, get quite extreme in no time at all, then end with little impact on the events that follow.

Red Sparrow can be enjoyable in the moment, thanks to a very solid cast, all of whom bring their best to roles big and small (Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and a scene-stealing turn from Mary Louise Parker). Chemistry between performers is palpable, and individual scenes come alive with intrigue. The film looks terrific, and it’s refreshing to see an American film let Hungary play itself instead of acting as a cheaper stand-in for Russia. But all its qualities fade in retrospect when it becomes clear how much time director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) wasted to go essentially nowhere, preserving an overly intricate story map that is not exciting enough to be worth all the detours.

Jennifer Lawrence is perfect in the role as Dominika, leaving us guessing as to whether she’s two steps ahead of everyone else or treading water. She and Edgerton play off of each other very well, but is it because they actually like each other or is that just what she wants him to think? This dynamic may have been worth more if the movie itself didn’t scream, “Look out, there’s a twist coming!”

Everything about Red Sparrow is 40 years too late, from its Cold War plot to putting Rampling in a state-sponsored sex camp like a 1970s European exploitation movie, to relying on dated plot twists. Too long to be worthwhile, too predictable to recommend.

Playing this week

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056

Annihilation, Black Panther, Peter Rabbit, Pillow Talk

Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213

Annihilation, Black Panther, Death Wish, Early Man, Every Day, Fifty Shades Freed, Game Night, The Greatest Showman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Peter Rabbit

Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000

Annihilation, Black Panther, Call Me By Your Name, Darkest Hour, Death Wish, Faces Places, Game Night, I, Tonya, Peter Rabbit, Phantom Thread, The Post, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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