Review: ‘Red Sparrow’

20th Century Fox

20th Century Fox

While Russians have never been in the good graces of American pop culture, it’s been some time since a paranoid, Russia-phobic spy thriller made its way into theaters, which is exactly what “Red Sparrow” aims to be.

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian ex-ballet dancer who is recruited into a secret training program to become an assassin. After her training, she’s tasked with gaining the trust of an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) while struggling to navigate the backstabbing world of the Russian government.

If you’ve been paying attention to the marketing of this film, you might expect it to be a sexy action-thriller with high stakes and engaging intrigue. If so, you have been deceived, and your consolation prize is wasted potential.

The fact that producers think this will actually succeed is reflective of our paranoia over Russian interference in American politics, perhaps signaling the start of a new Cold War or a continuation of one that never truly ended. And yet, instead of feeling like an impactful film for the modern era along the same lines as “Selma” or “The Florida Project,” “Red Sparrow” feels as though it’s a few decades behind the rest of the world.

One could complain for hours about the dull cinematography, bare minimum set design and the actors’ horrible Russian accents, but let’s get to the core of the problem: it’s mind numbingly boring. When making a Russian espionage film, you are going to want to come up with a new spin on it to make it interesting. “The Hunt for Red October” had an interesting idea with the silent submarine, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” had Guy Ritchie’s signature style and humor and “Atomic Blonde” had a vibrant neon color scheme set against the backdrop of East Germany’s underbelly. “Red Sparrow” has no secondary identity other than being a Russian spy movie. It’s as if you took any one of the several bland, paperback spy novels your dad is always reading and just transferred it directly to screen.

The pacing doesn’t help make it more exciting. While this slow, methodical approach may have worked a lot better in the book, which was written by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, the film feels like it’s dragging its feet through its 2 hour 20 minute run-time. We’re stuck in the Russian training camp for the first 40 minutes where nothing is happening in regards to the main plot. Couldn’t we have just started with her graduating from assassin school and left her past as a mysterious backstory? Apparently not.

For a movie with such potential for political storytelling, there’s no point to take away. Perhaps the point was to just observe how evil the Russian government is, but it feels half-hearted. Firstly, the CIA people are presented to be just as scummy as the KGB. Secondly, we are never given a reason to care. Russian agents constantly do jarringly horrible things to our protagonists and I wasn’t the slightest bit affected by it because the characters aren’t worth investing in. Nobody is given any sort of charm or interesting qualities, despite a backstory so dark it could rival “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

“Red Sparrow” is certainly one of the blandest films of the new year due to its lack of personality, significant filmmaking talent and any reason for the viewer to care.