After watching Red Sparrow for 20 minutes I was fairly sure it was an old-school Cold War thriller of a Russian spy with split allegiances between her government, the Soviet Union, and a love-interest from the U.S.A. Simples, Sergei.
As it turns out the film is actually set in a parallel universe which is kind of like modern-day Russia but mostly not. Spies still give each other grainy black-and-white photos of people on park benches like an old episode of 24. Calls are made from telephone booths and landlines attached to the walls. But there are also smartphones? It’s weird.
The plot is as confused as the setting. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Dominika, is blackmailed into becoming a ‘Sparrow’ – a spy who use their sexual prowess to spy for Mother Russia. Her characters’ motives are vague but when you have such a big star playing the central role it’s difficult for the character to be heard.
The film is a slow-burner. Lawrence is assigned by her spymaster uncle to discover a CIA agent’s mole in the Russian government by “getting close to him”. The film’s main tension comes from with whom Dominika’s loyalties truly lie: the Russian state, her dying mother, or the CIA agent she was assigned to track and has apparently fallen in love with.+
Great patience is required to stay interested in this question, largely because nothing particularly interesting happens to make us care about any of the characters’ choices and destinies. The occasional shocking torture or impassioned sex scene seemed like a cheap trick to mask the mediocrity of the core plot.
I mentioned at the start that I thought this film was set during the Cold War. The thought kept occurring to me throughout, with the portrayal of the two governments. The Russians: cold and ruthless and the Americans: good-natured and harmless. While this may very well mirror reality I had hoped for a spy thriller from a Russian perspective. Instead, we got the usual Devil and Saint character we’ve seen in the Bond films, Mission: Impossible and other Popcorn Spy flicks.
The fact that the film was clearly not shot in Russia is a big problem. For no particular reason, the films’ action all takes place in Budapest. As pretty as Budapest can be, I think the Taken series has made me a little sick of spy thrillers set in Continental Europe. It’s almost comical when the characters are “taken to Russia” all the action takes place indoors. I would think this is more a result of VISA’s being unobtainable for a Hollywood movie. To boot none of the leading actors are actually Russian and all bar, Matthias Schoenaerts, have distinctly hammy accents – honestly, some of them sound British.
In sum, I didn’t hate it, but it was a wasted opportunity to explore how espionage has changed in Russia since the Cold War. When you compare this film to other spy thrillers which moved the genre forward, like the Bourne series, you’ll realise that Red Sparrow is singing an old tune.