As easy sells go in 2018, a hard-boiled spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence as a seductive Nikita-esque Russian operative may well be one of the easiest. Yet, despite the expected level of glossy stylistic polish, Red Sparrow walks a fine line between between being better suited to a more bog-standard popcorn action thriller and leaning into becoming a more high-brow Tinker Tailor-style espionage drama. Worst of all, though, is that it doesn’t so much walk that line as it does stumble carelessly, the result an uneven and even uninteresting picture.
Lawrence headlines this Russian-set thriller as prima ballerina Dominika, whose involvement in a murder sees her facing either jail time or recruitment as a “Sparrow”, a clandestine group of spies trained to use their sexual prowess as a weapon. Discovering a natural ability to embed herself in the role, Dominika’s first mission – targeting CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) – at first seems straightforward enough for the rookie spy, but, soon enough, the mission goes sideways, leaving the former dancer at a crossroads that could unravel the security of the both her nation and his.
Doubling down on the grit n’ gristle of his work on the Hunger Games series, Austrian director Lawrence wisely calls on his music video credentials here to imbue Red Sparrow with some rather well-executed visual sexuality. There’s an almost coital sensibility to his violence, a starkness to his depiction of outright sexualisation, and, yes, a decent amount of soft focus to sell the glamour of Dominika’s world. Throw in some highly effective editing by Alan Edward Bell, a compelling score by the always reliable James Newton Howard, and lavish production design by Jo Willems, and Red Sparrow – fronted by arguably the biggest young star of the day – has everything going for it, making it only more disappointing then that it never quite works.
Lawrence brings the A game as usual, and her credentials as a bonafide name-on-the-poster star feel more iron-clad than ever before. She’s let down though by rather passive writing from Justin Haythe, whose characterisation takes a decidedly “tell, don’t show” position that really ties one hand behind her back. Red Sparrow could almost have been salvaged were its lead in any way a compelling character, instead Haythe’s screenplay simply coasts along, refusing to become either as smart or as dumb as it needs to be, and ignores granting Lawrence real depth along the way. Ever the game performer, Lawrence herself does manage to spin this into a pretty internalised performance, shunting the film’s flaws then firmly back where they belong, and arguably forming Red Sparrow’s saving grace in the process.
Presumably making for a thrilling airport novel (Red Sparrow adapts Jason Matthews’ bestseller of the same name), you’ll find yourself wishing Haythe and Lawrence had aimed for something more akin to either the slickly entertaining Alias and Atomic Blonde or even the female answer to Tinker Tailor instead, rather than delivering the unwavering half-measure Red Sparrow presents itself as.
It’s a tonal mess that more than outstays its welcome at the near two-and-a-half hour mark, and is held together largely on the back of a director with a modicum of style and a starlet cleverly utilising the sexualised storyline of the picture to exact her own personalised meta-text (expect an Honest Trailer retitling Red Sparrow as Jennifer Lawrence’s iCloud: The Movie at some point). Outside of these two elements, however, Red Sparrow simply never takes flight; and, as spy thrillers go, it’s on the decidedly unthrilling side.