Edwin Arnaudin: The espionage thriller Red Sparrow may be set in modern day, but other than the presence of smart phones and current vehicles, its Cold War continuance plot feels like it could take place anywhere over the past 15-20 years. Does that absence of a contemporary hook broaden its appeal or did it leave you yearning for more intentionality?
Bruce Steele: When Russia is all over the news and you can’t find a current hook for your movie about Russia, you’re in trouble. This movie is so confused about what it wants to be that it winds up spinning its wheels for nearly 140 minutes and not going anywhere. The first destination, the school for spy seduction, was the most interesting stop on this road to nowhere, but we don’t stay there long, and the whole concept is dropped by about midway. What, if anything, intrigued you?
Edwin: The cast, foremost. While I think Jennifer Lawrence is our current poster child for receiving too much acclaim too soon, with each new film I hope she’ll return to building on her early-career indie appeal instead of trying to be “a movie star,” a role for which I think her limited range is ill-suited. But as Russian ballerina-turned-spy Dominika, she’s not doing much we haven’t seen her do before, plus her accent comically comes and goes. Regarding the film’s murderer’s row of supporting players: Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ciarán Hinds, Mary-Louise Parker, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson and Jeremy Irons only seem intermittently invested.
Bruce: I don’t think anyone was deeply committed to this project except maybe the costumes, hair and makeup teams. Director Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants, I Am Legend), who worked with JLaw on the final three Hunger Games movies, seems always to be at the mercy of his script. This one, based on a longish novel, is a mess, and as you point out, the cast seems to know it. Parker is a pleasure in a small part, but the great Irons doesn’t even bring any zing to a big scene he’s handed late in the movie. And don’t you think it’s about time for Edgerton to fire his agent?
Edwin: Since his dual Jeff Nichols collaborations in 2016, Midnight Special and Loving, he’s on an arctic cold streak with It Comes at Night, Bright and now this. His choices make me wonder if he’s sabotaging his acting career to steer attention to his promising work as a writer/director, the second taste of which we’ll get later this year with Boy Erased. But beyond the general cast letdown, Red Sparrow is a generally good-looking film, more visually accomplished and grand than the other FLaw works you mentioned. Did the direction and production value do much for you?
Bruce: Not really. I found the movie very Russian: Cold, gray and largely impenetrable. A few nice images and outfits don’t make up for a couple otherwise dreary hours. The story is so unfocused, zigzagging from that neat initial premise to a half-baked love story — in which the only lovemaking is one fully dressed encounter on a sofa — to a poor imitation of John LeCarre. Looking at the director’s resume, emotional connection seems a consistent weakness in his movies, hobbling even the super-romantic narrative of Water for Elephants. Any nascent feeling in this movie is regularly snuffed out by its brutality.
Edwin: It certainly is a cruel, nasty little movie in a lot of ways. If Lawrence wants to grow as a performer, there are better ways than being beaten, sexually assaulted and humiliated on a regular basis. She’s eventually able to get the upper hand and make these trespasses “worth it,” but far more so for her character versus us long-suffering viewers. Still, it’s nowhere near the female-empowerment film it thinks it is.
Bruce: Right on. Atomic Blonde was vicious, but Charlize Theron’s character kicked a lot of ass. This Sparrow only rarely strikes a blow, and she gets many times what she can dole out. There really are no significant virtues I can tease out of Red Sparrow, whether in message, in narrative or in execution. It’s not original, not visually compelling, not interesting and not fun. I could be generous and give it a low D for Parker and a few decent images, but really a movie that fails this badly deserves an F.
Edwin: I didn’t hate it that much. My mind may have wandered on occasion, but I was generally taken with the visuals and the mystery, though I agree that joy never enters into the equation. I’ll also take a room of half-asleep Schoenaerts, Hinds and Irons over lesser, wide awake goods, as well as a typically reliable Camp giving everyone around him a hard time. I can’t recommend it, but I don’t think it deserves less than a C.
Grade: D-plus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos: Twentieth Century Fox)