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RED SPARROW Was Nearly Good, But Doesn’t Fully Take Flight (Review)

Spy movies are, for some of us, the best kinds of movies. Intrigue, action, high stakes, and psychological warfare? Gimmie. Anchor it with a badass woman using her knowledge of the human condition to manipulate men to do what she wants? Sign us up. Seemingly prescient topics given the current political climate? Here. For. It. So it’s why we’re left slightly scratching our heads after viewing Red Sparrow, the sexpot-y Russian spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. A film that very nearly gives us everything we want—with one nagging misstep.

Red Sparrow tells a really engaging spy story—one where a woman tries to reclaim herself while still playing the game she was forced into. It focuses on Jennifer Lawrence‘s Dominika Egorova, a one-time Russian ballet star who has to find another way to support her ailing mother (a woefully miscast Joely Richardson) and herself. Enter: her scheming uncle, Vanya Egorov (the very good Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking official in the country’s intelligence agency, the S.V.R.. Devoted to the idea that the West’s moral sentimentality can be used to bring Russia to the forefront of international issues, Dominika is sent to a school to learn to use sexual degradation and manipulation to get intel on the machinations of other political players overseas.

Ultimately, the story plays out as one would expect: there’s a mole high up! C.I.A. agent and stereotypical rogue-leader type Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) tries to protect him and messes up! The Russians send in Dominika to figure it all out! But for a film about the control sex and that human need for connection has on a person (negatively, in the case of the sparrows), it is staunchly crafted for that same, dehumanizing gaze. The cognitive dissonance may not ring as odd to many—we live in a world that mandates service to the male gaze—but in 2018, it’s hard to ignore at certain points, rendering some of the most scintillating moments less effective in their duality.

Plus, it’s just sort of oddly shot. Director Francis Lawrence films a large part of the movie from below, not only to give a sense of voyeurism and anxiety, but to also focus in on Dominika’s ass and beauty, even as she’s being threatened with rape (on more than one occasion). It works well for the film’s violence, which isn’t exactly plentiful but is certainly not shied away from when it’s on-screen. But it leaves one feeling that glorification transferred over to the power these men have—the power Dominika is expertly, surgically, and brilliantly trying to subvert and navigate in order to stay alive.

The film takes a bit too long to take off: some of its dopiest scenes happen in a school run by Charlotte Rampling (who is as good as she always is), known only as “Matron” to her students. But the film’s most fascinating moments—the meaty, psychological weight of which is neutered by Lawrence’s camerawork—also happens during her studies, and when you see Dominika own her sexual power and conquer her attacker, you’re ready to root for the Russian spy to take down every man that crosses her with blisteringly human ease. It’s just a shame there wasn’t more of that weight transferred into how the film was shot—seeing their faces more than their bodies would’ve given the film a bit of the psychological musing it was missing. After all: this sparrow is not like the rest, and it would’ve been more engaging to see a bit more of the how and why behind her eyes.

Overall, if you’re a fan of the spy genre, there’s a lot to like in Red Sparrow. If you’re like me, however, you may be left wanting quite a bit more. So make up your own mind when it hits theaters on March 1.

2.5 saucy burritos out of 5:

Alicia Lutes is the Managing Editor, creator/host of Fangirling, and resident Khaleesi of House Nerdist. Find her on Twitter!

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Images: 20th Century Fox

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