Red Sparrow (2018)

*. “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces.” So Charlotte Rampling’s Rosa Klebb (or simply Matron, as she’s styled here) tells the entering class of new students at Russia’s top secret spy school. I appreciated the heads-up, because without it I might have thought this film was set some forty years earlier.
*. Apparently I was not alone. When the novel was first optioned the producers planned to push the story back to the 1970s. They changed their minds, but then others noticed that the plot was very similar to a 1985 TV movie called Secret Weapons. The point being not that the novel was plagiarized but that it is wholly generic. It’s a Cold War spy thriller, and in Hollywood at least the Cold War really hasn’t ended.
*. The novel was written by Jason Matthews, who got some credit for having been a former CIA operative (whatever that entails). I ask: so what? The story here is preposterous (though played straight) and doesn’t contain anything interesting or new on the level of tradecraft. It’s actually a bit depressing that these are the kind of paperback fantasies (drawn from Fleming, LeCarre, or Ludlum) bored CIA employees are still having. Oh, those sexy but deadly Russian agents who were formerly prima ballerinas! They never get old.
*. Despite (or perhaps because) of the clichéd story, Matthews was paid a lot of money for the rights to his book. Plus there was the fact that it was only the first volume in a trilogy, meaning it had franchise potential. As if we needed any more such films.
*. There is much not to like. The plot is less complex than silly. Even Dominika’s name is unrealistic, and had to be changed to Veronica when the film was released in Russia because apparently no one would believe a name like Dominika.
*. Two hours and 20 minutes. Egad. There was no need for it to go on so long. They should have wrapped all this up in an hour and a  half.
*. The whole training school section was a waste, as there was no psychological movement to be tracked, as in Nikita, and the only lessons Dominika learns have to do with general principles of male sexuality that I think every girl has figured out by the time she’s finished high school. I mean the West may have grown weak — “drunk on shopping and social media,” as Matron says — but at least we don’t have to send our kids to special state schools that use porn videos to show us what turns guys on.

*. There’s some skin. Jennifer Lawrence has a nice ass, and is not afraid to wear a totally impractical swimsuit to do laps in at a public pool (that top would have set her boobs free as soon as she hit the water). Unfortunately she’s saddled with one of those awful Russian accents that are impossible to take seriously.
*. There’s some violence, much of it with a seasoning of sex. I’ve even seen it stuck it with the label of torture porn, and given the way things play out I think there’s some fairness to the charge. Director Francis Lawrence wanted a “hard R” rating from the start, but to what end? There is nothing either erotic or suspenseful in what’s going on.
*. Why does Dominika hate her uncle so much anyway? He doesn’t arrange her ballet accident. Once her leg is broken she doesn’t have many options and he gives her one. She calls her spy training “whore school,” but isn’t that just being bitchy? If her uncle had wanted to make her his kept woman, given his position and her suddenly precarious position he surely could have. But he doesn’t. There are suggestions of his attraction to her throughout, but we don’t actually see him proposition her or make any moves. The way he watches her being stripped and tortured doesn’t seem quite right, but she doesn’t know he’s watching and by that time her plans for revenge are already well advanced. So why does she blame him for all her troubles? This must be important as her revenge is what drives the whole plot. I feel like I missed something.
*. The DVD commentary by Francis Lawrence didn’t clear things up. He mentions wanting to make the relationship between Dominika and her uncle seem creepy, but given how important it is I think it needs to be a lot more than that.
*. Reviewers who were trying to think of nice things to say praised Jennifer Lawrence and the film’s sense of style. I think Lawrence is wooden and the style, if that’s what it is, overrated. I don’t think it’s a stylish film at all. I think it’s a movie that like to show off luxurious sets and European locations. Lawrence’s direction is totally flat.
*. So it’s dumb. Dull. Vulgar in the sense of just jolting the audience with sex and violence in order to keep them awake. A total disappointment for anyone hoping to see a spy story brought in to the twenty-first century. Instead it just rehashes a bunch of clichés so as to insist that nothing has in fact changed. There’s no need to be ironic or put such material in a period film (or to do both, as in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). The Cold War didn’t end, so let’s go back to the future.

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