The spy thriller genre is a tough one to crack. There is a wealth of different directions a filmmaker or writer can go within the framework of a spy thriller. One direction could be action heavy like with James Bond, Mission Impossible or Atomic Blonde movies. Another direction could be slow and methodical, favoring realism and intricate stories over bombastic action sequences, like a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There are other directions these movies can go but generally, I think we see most spy movies go between these two routes. Not only do spy thrillers have to figure out their style but their plots have to be smart enough to be engaging but also not to the point of being convoluted. Spy movies live and breathe by the double crosses, who’s on whose side, and will our heroes be caught moments?
Director Francis Lawrence, of Hunger Games and I Am Legend fame, frames this movie in the latter category of spy thrillers, Red Sparrow is a methodical and realistic turn in the spy genre. There are almost no big action moments to speak of and Red Sparrow has an air of real authenticity (the original source material is written by a former CIA agent). The few sorts of action beats that there are, are quick and brutal. The action beats exist less so to entertain you but rather to add to the brutality of the spy world and advance the story. Red Sparrow is more interested in characters than action. This type of spy movie is harder to make because it doesn’t have the fun action sequences to keep you entertained, movies like Red Sparrow will only work if the story is strong.
Red Sparrow is heavy on mood and filled with good performances and for the first third of the movie, Sparrow is an engaging and haunting watch. Unfortunately, Red Sparrow is not successful as a film. Once we start moving into the main plot of the narrative, Sparrow gradually falls apart, struggling to keep the story interesting and doesn’t feel entirely confident in its character choices either. Lawrence creates a heavy and nasty movie but the story doesn’t support an emotional investment.
Red Sparrow stars Jennifer Lawrence (no relation to the director) as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballet dancer who is injured in a horrible onstage accident. She no longer can dance but she wants to become something again and needs to find something in order to support her sick mother. She goes to her Uncle Vanya Egorov, a high ranking member in the Russian government and he gives her the option to become a Sparrow. A Sparrow is an agent of the Russian government, trained to use their bodies and mind to extract information. They find out what the other person most desires and uses it to gain their trust and engage in espionage.
The most interesting parts of Red Sparrow all lie within the first act. Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe expertly navigate the web of interconnected characters and establish the two parallel plots that are key to the movie’s narrative. The movie opens juxtaposing Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika ballet dancing with Joel Edgerton’s Nate Nash’s espionage assignment in Russia. We know these two will meet eventually and this helps set up their two different journeys. Nate Nash is working with a Russia mole and through an incident with Russian police, his cover is blown.
The movie continues and Dominika is sent to Sparrow school and this is where Francis Lawrence gets the most out of his story. The movie is dark and unsettling throughout the runtime but it was never more gross or sickening than it was in Sparrow school. Lawrence doesn’t characterize Dominika’s journey as a pleasant one and if you feel disgusted, that’s exactly what Lawrence is going for here. Some of the material Francis Lawrence is dealing with is heavy and he handles with mature but ugly fashion. Lawrence feels liberated by not being handcuffed by the typical PG-13 rating he works with. He takes full advantage of the R rating, not to be exploitative but to create a dangerous world that has no filters. In many respects, I found this movie had more in common with David Fincher’s The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo than a Tom Clancy style techno-thriller.
This is also the section of the movie where we feel most connected with our main characters because Francis Lawrence isn’t bogged down by the heavy amounts of a plot yet. There is a plot and the movie is wise to remind us of it but this first act is character heavy and very engaging.
However, after the first act, the movie slowly begins to fall apart. Sparrow fails to make the plot interesting and this is because of two key mistakes. The first mistake is not clearly establishing stakes. We do know what will happen at a personal level for Dominika if she fails but we don’t know what will happen at a government level. What will happen if Russia discovers who the mole is? How does that hamper Nate Nash? What kind of information is he giving him? How is it hurting Russia? Not clearly establishing the stakes makes it hard to care about the material. The movie isn’t dull because the same mood and tone that Lawrence established in the first act are still there but I never could feel myself caring about Dominika’s mission.
The second key mistake is keeping Dominika’s intentions at a distance. Red Sparrow unwisely takes the approach of trying to keep the audience guessing over what Dominika’s intentions are when she is on the mission. Having the first act of the movie being so intensely character-focused makes this sudden new approach feel completely at odds with the beginning of the movie. A lot of this is one to hide a twist, which didn’t need to be hidden, and really undercuts the character work Lawrence did at the beginning of the movie. This type of approach I suspect might work better on the printed page where the author could fill the pages with her internal doubts but here the screenwriter doesn’t have that luxury.
Red Sparrow is a movie that on several levels seems to have a lot going for it. The movie feels very authentic without becoming too mundane and dull (a complaint I had about the 2014 spy thriller A Most Wanted Man). There is a great deal of mood that Francis Lawrence illustrates with and the performances of Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton are quite good while the first act of the movie is expertly crafted. There is some risky material that Red Sparrow deals with that is brave and bold for a mainstream spy movie. However, a couple of key storytelling mistakes hinder the movie. Attempting to hide a twist undercuts the movie’s character work entirely and not clearly establishing stakes devoids the movie of excitement. There is enough here to make me interested in seeing the next two books adapted into movies but for the first film in a trilogy, this one didn’t possess the intrigue to make Red Sparrow work.