When the trailers for Red Sparrow first hit the web, most of the internet hive mind joked that it was basically Black Widow movie with a different name, and with Jennifer Lawrence taking the place of Scarlett Johansson. But, Red Sparrow is nothing like what a theoretical Black Widow movie could be. It is so much more than that, and also, regrettably, not very good.
Based on a 2013 novel by CIA veteran Jason Matthews, Lawrence stars as Dominika, a prima ballerina pushed by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) into service as a “Sparrow,” an agent of seduction for Russian intelligence. Made up of men and women alike, Sparrows are trained to coerce secrets out of targets. Things get complicated when Dominika bonds with a CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a supervisor to a Russian mole.
That story, save for maybe the sexy honeypots and lovers torn apart by allegiances, could be the basis for a Black Widow movie, too. In the Marvel series, Johansson plays Natasha Romanov, a Russian super spy who underwent harsh training to be an assassin and infiltrator. Though Johansson has played the character across five films and counting, she hasn’t yet starred in her own blockbuster as the Black Widow. From the outside, Red Sparrow looks like a substitute, but looks are deceiving.
Devoid of style and levity to buoy its cynicism (something a Marvel movie would double down on), Red Sparrow is a distinctly old-school spy movie that eschews modern spy movie trappings. Slick fight scenes and car chases that characterize other female-led action thrillers, like Atomic Blonde and Wonder Woman, are nowhere to be found. But, Red Sparrow does one thing very well, and it’s something that even the R-rated Atomic Blonde glosses over, to say nothing of PG-13 superhero fare: Brutality.
Red Sparrow is, literally, not a pretty movie. For instance, take this moment halfway through the film: A drunk woman, walking into a busy intersection, gets utterly obliterated by a speeding truck. I knew it was coming, but the ferocity still jolted me in my seat, the impact’s sound effect resembling a pancake with bones on the griddle. And that wasn’t even the first time I realized Marvel could never, and would never, make this movie, even with a character as lethal as ScarJo’s Avenger.
Red Sparrow is bold and brutal, and definitely not a superhero movie. But what is it trying to be instead? In his first movie since finishing The Hunger Games, director Francis Lawrence ditches James Bond shine for real dirt under his protagonist’s fingernails. Lawrence dares audiences with Red Sparrow as he brings the spy genre to a dark and gritty place it hasn’t been in years. It’s an admirable effort with an underwhelming result.
The movie also isn’t a romance about lovers on conflicting sides. That’s what it may sound like on paper, and Red Sparrow may have been a better film had that been the case. Instead, Dominika and Nate, the film’s most central relationship, lack a fiery passion which keeps audiences from really investing in their journeys. Dominika and Nate refuse to take their eyes off the mission when they should have trouble taking their eyes off each other. Meanwhile, audiences have trouble keeping their eyes on the screen.
Perhaps there’s no room for intimacy in Red Sparrow, a movie where bodies aren’t valued but instead mutilated for two and a half hours. When people get hurt, they get hurt, and making onscreen pain palpable is where Lawrence as the director excels the most; a torture scene with a skin grafter, followed by a raw kitchen knife fight, had grizzled critics in my screening squirming in their chairs. The violence in Red Sparrow is an exercise in brutal, uncomfortable power, but it’s not the only place power is explored. Because of the nature of Sparrows, the film is bombarded with nude bodies, but nothing in the film can actually be described as sexy. In one “lesson” Dominika learns in Sparrow School, she sits nude in front of the classroom, daring her attempted rapist to “fuck” her right there. (Spoilers: He’s too intimidated to get it up.)
The point of the lesson, we’re supposed to believe, is power — who gives it, who is subject to it. That violent lesson in realpolitik is, ultimately, what Red Sparrow is trying to be about. It almost succeeds as it zaps away sensuality in a movie front-loaded with sex. But without a strong intimate center to contrast the harsh reality, the film fails to entertain, and casual audiences may be left confused about its gender and sexual politics.
Oftentimes bleak and maybe too long, Red Sparrow pushes a visceral envelope in ways that hasn’t been seen in years. That’s not to say it’s a smart movie, or even an entertaining one. And it’s mostly by accident this movie is about Russian spies in the era of Donald Trump. But as a vehicle for its star as well as a creative departure for director Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow is undeniably its own thing. Don’t mistake it for anything else.
Red Sparrow will arrive in theaters on March 2.