It’s always frustrating when a film has all the potential in the world to be great, only to be a fairly middling affair with not much to offer. Such is the case with director Francis Lawrence’s new film, Red Sparrow, starring his Hunger Games star, Jennifer Lawrence. What promised to be a throwback Cold War spy thriller ends up being a dull, overlong, and frankly frustrating experience that doesn’t add much new to the genre. Instead, it just reminds the audience of better films that have tread these similar story beats before, but done so more effectively.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a famed Russian dancer who’s living her best life that she can onstage, while also taking care of her ailing mother off stage. When a tragic accident rips Dominika’s dream away, she’s left with nothing. Bent on taking care of her mother, Dominika is ushered into an underground Russian spy group where she’s trained to become an agent simply known as a Sparrow, whose mission is simply to infiltrate and kill. But Dominika quickly catches the eye of an American, Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), who decides to try and get close to Dominika, and possibly use her as an asset. The problem is, who can trust who in this game of cat and mouse?
Honestly, all the above sounds like it should make for a violent, at times harrowing, and an overall exciting spy thriller. But somehow Lawrence, and his screenwriters Eric Singer and Justin Haythe, suck all that potential out to create an incredibly standard film that really has no personality. Every beat in Red Sparrow seems rehashed from a better film, which is understandable as the genre is fairly crowded so there’s always going to be crossover. Unfortunately it feels more like a bland ripoff than offering a cool new take on something familiar, and that’s where Red Sparrow truly falters. It also doesn’t help that the script feels often times just sort of aimless, wandering to each scene with no real sense of urgency or reason. For a movie that’s over two hours, that’s especially frustrating as it makes the movie feel bloated, just simply for the sake of it.
The same could also be said for the treatment of most of the characters in the film, as it feels like there’s so many players throughout, but none of them truly matter all that much, nor are they all that interesting. Lawrence really does good work as Dominika, which may be one of her best performances. You can relate to her cause in some ways, and the damage she goes through would make any sane person angry. But when she’s the only slightly interesting character, you’re in trouble. Not a single other character in Red Sparrow really registers in any sort of way. Joel Edgerton really tries with some truly titled dialogue, which holds him back greatly from doing much. Jeremy Irons, who is always great to watch, is only here to be Jeremy Irons while adding some sort of prestige to the picture. It’s just bizarre that a thriller like this has so many characters, but not a single one outside of the lead is interesting in any way, which leads to having little to no vested interest in anything that’s happening in the film.
Red Sparrow also makes a very bizarre tonal shift in the third act that really undermines the rest of the film in a big way. This film has very little comedy or levity, and the moment that Mary-Louise Parker shows up, the whole thing just falls apart. This isn’t because Parker can’t act, but it’s because it doesn’t fit the movie that we’ve been given until this point. This may be one of the most crazy miscasting situations in recent memory for any movie, and it’s a shame, because Parker is a fantastic actress who deserved better. But when you have a movie that just doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, this is the kind of thing that happens.
However, it’s not all bad for Red Sparrow. Lawrence does a great job building tension when it’s called for in some select scenes in the film. There’s very little action, so Lawrence doesn’t get to show off any of his action skills that we’re used to seeing in his other work, and honestly, you can feel he would love to unleash if he could. The few action beats feel intense, even intensely brutal where you don’t want to look, but you keep waiting for him to take it, and Jennifer, to the next level in the film. This could easily be an action spy franchise in the vein of John Wick or Jack Ryan, but instead it stifles itself from ever really reaching that potential. The word that continually sums up the experience is frustrating, because this movie could honestly be so much more than it is, and yet it just doesn’t seem to want to get there.
While Red Sparrow is clearly a film the studio is hoping can lead to a franchise, it may be best to just leave well enough alone. While the film is stylishly shot, and features a great performance by Jennifer Lawrence, the rest of the film is just a tired retread of better material. Overlong and dull, with no real sense of what it wants to be, Red Sparrow just feels like an exercise in the viewer’s patience. It’s really a shame that a film with so much potential is just so flat, because it had all the potential to be something special.