Thursday, March 1, 2018

Red Sparrow

Prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) watches her life fall apart after a career-ending injury leaves her with not a lot of options. Having to take care of her ailing mother, she finds herself in a desperate situation. Enter Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) with an interesting proposal: Work for him and be a sparrow. And so she is sent to spy academy where headmistress Matron (Charlotte Rampling) oversees her transformation from dancer to weapon, teaching her the basics of manipulation via seduction. Her first mission has her tailing CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who becomes the object of her affection. But are sparrows allowed to love, or is this nothing more than an elaborate ploy to secure classified information? In the end, who is fooling whom?

Red Sparrow is not that bad. It’s just that there are so many other femme fatale flicks that happen to be more memorable, not to mention characters that have enough clamor for them to have their own solo movie. Does Black Widow ring a bell? We’ve already had our fair share of female super spies in the last few decades. Do we really need another one?

Or perhaps it’s the theme? Atomic Blonde also tackled the Cold War, but did so in a shock-and-awe avant-garde fashion that just left you scratching your head as the credits rolled, wondering what hit you. You don’t get that feeling with Red Sparrow. Instead, you get a flurry of inconsistent Russian accents, gratuitous nudity, and unadulterated violence. It will make you squeal, then make you wonder whether that was really necessary, like the action version of a jump scare. But the greatest critic that Red Sparrow will have to endure is its seemingly passé treatment of women.

In this day and age when the ladies are beginning to assert their femininity and power in ways that are more in tune with modernity, is there really any place left for such a genre where they are objectified and exploited according to the whims of the men around them? While we can say that the plot eventually makes up for it anyway, there is just no erasing the horrors and atrocities you must witness Dominika endure in the film’s more than two-hour run. Somehow, the narrative just feels like a reductive take on the current discourse regarding women empowerment.

This does not mean to say that Lawrence is to blame. If anything, she seems to be the only bright spot in this gloomy and outdated universe still obsessed with the Cold War. As she navigates the murky waters of espionage, she makes you feel a lot of strong emotions that are not typical Jennifer Lawrence. Despair. Deceit. Rage. While it doesn’t feel similar to how Atomic Blonde was a legit passion project for Charlize Theron, there is this impression that Lawrence accepted this film to prove something, maybe not to her audience but to herself. Reading some of the material emerging from her press junkets and interviews, it appears like she got what she came for after all. In that regard, she deserves some kudos.

Or maybe Red Sparrow simply went overboard with the sexual side of espionage? As Dominika herself says, she got sent to “whore” school. True enough, there seemed to be more emphasis on sex and seduction at that academy. What happened to weapons training and combat skills? It doesn’t help that the scenes there only comprised around a third of the running time. In the end, everything just feels so premature and contrived.

In fairness to the big twist, it does come as a surprise. The way they spread out the clues is done in a convincing manner that effectively paves the way for poetic justice. While it won’t go down in history as one of the more memorable femme fatale flicks you’ve seen, Red Sparrow is still a worthwhile distraction apt for a boring evening.

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