Red Sparrow, the new Jennifer Lawrence spy thriller, opens on March 2. It’s Lawrence’s first movie since the controversial and divisive mother! last year. After seeing the film this week, EW’s movie critics Chris Nashawaty and Leah Greenblatt discuss what does — and mostly doesn’t — work about the film.
Nashawaty: Leah, we’ve all been seeing trailers for Red Sparrow for a while now. And the one thing I keep wondering is why a big splashy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence — arguably the biggest female movie star in the world right now — is being released at a time when most big studios traditionally release their junkiest movies. Actually that, and — what’s the deal with Lawrence’s Boris & Natasha Russian accent? What do you think, is it any good? The movie, not the accent. Well, I guess both…
Greenblatt: The accent was a real hurdle. I almost wish she’d gone full Disaster Artist James Franco and just tried for something entirely fictional — who could get mad at a little Transylvanian Creole? But seriously, I think I went into Sparrow expecting something very slick and camp; Atomic Blonde in a tutu. Instead, it felt much more Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with shades of La Femme Nikita, or at least trying to be. The visuals were mostly grim, grey cityscapes, and the violence was brutal, not balletic. Which is ironic of course, considering Lawrence’s character is a fallen prima ballerina.
My larger issue was with the sexual politics of the movie: Fool me once with a rape plot device, shame on you. Fool me four or five times, shame on… well, pretty much everybody involved. I was surprised too to see an Oscar-winning actress at arguably the height of her career do what I thought was a pretty graphic and unnecessary nude scene. But maybe I’m too fried by the current political climate; someone could easily say that those moments are designed to show her coming into her own power, and that sex is an integral part of the espionage game. Spies gonna spy, using all the tricks they learned at KGB camp — or as she calls it, “whore school.”
Nashawaty: Is it too late to get the airline version of Red Sparrow dubbed into Transylvanian Creole? Because I think that’s the only way I would voluntarily watch this movie again. Not that it’s terrible. It’s totally fine in a forgettable sort of way. The problem is it just doesn’t add up to the sum of its promising parts: exotic locations, sexy double- and triple-crosses, and a great cast full of the kinds of actors who can turn bad movies into watchable ones (Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Joel Edgerton, Bill Camp). And I agree that it had a serious, grim Soviet-era sheen to it that reminded me of old Cold War cloak-and-dagger movies like Gorky Park and The Russia House and anything involving John le Carré’s chainsmoking, trenchcoat-wearing anti-Bond spies.
As for the film’s sexual politics, yeah, I sort of felt a bit put off watching Lawrence using sex as a weapon, getting humiliated and beaten to a pulp, and letting it all hang out in scenes that felt fairly gratuitous. Clearly she trusts the director, Francis Lawrence, who worked with her on the Hunger Games movies. But I have to say, the fourth or fifth time she’s forced to get buck naked, it begins to feel like the kind of cheesy, leering exploitation flick that would come with the tagline: “Red Sparrow: The Only Thing Deadlier Than Her Mission Was Her Kiss.” Obviously, her character is ruthlessly clever and totally in charge and a step ahead of most of the men in the film, but it all felt somehow beneath her. She’s too big of a star to be playing the Sean Young role in No Way Out. A lot of the other actors in the film seemed to have a better handle on the kind of movie they signed up for. Who do you think seemed to be having the most fun?
Greenblatt: Mary Louise Parker’s boozy Senate staffer was definitely in her own, much funner movie. And Rampling really seemed to be enjoying her Perestroika-Madame-of-the-spy-school shtick; I’m kind of amazed the prop master didn’t let her have an actual riding crop. I truly love both Joel Edgerton and Matthias Schoenaerts (who looks freakishly Putin-esque here, how did I not realize that until now?) as actors. Though I think you’re right, they’re A-level guys hustling hard to bring C material up to a B.
One thing I found strange is that current faces aside, there wasn’t much to place the movie in the year 2018. There was hardly any future-y tech stuff — a crucial plot point literally revolves around floppy disks— or fresh takes, style-wise, on what is a pretty le Carré-crusted genre at this point. I mean, do Russians even get to be the bad guys in movies without Bruce Willis in them anymore? (All actual current events aside.) Which begs the question: What does Sparrow bring to the cineplex that hasn’t been done before, and better? I think overall I enjoyed the whole thing more than you did, though I could have done without some of the slow torture; I’ll clearly never be using a cheese slicer again. But I do agree that there’s nothing strictly necessary about this movie existing in this moment now, and it does feel like a waste of Lawrence’s talents. In some ways, it felt like watching her get punished in mother! all over again, with more double-crossings and less cream-colored knitwear. Still, I’d watch it on a rainy day, or an airplane. Or a rainy airplane. Would you not go that far?
Nashawaty: I think that sounds about right. Although as soon as you cut out all of the gorier interrogation scenes and nudity, the movie wouldn’t work on a flight unless that flight was from New York to Trenton. I guess it sort of felt to me like a clumsier version of Angelina Jolie’s Salt — and that wasn’t especially good either. Still, I’d happily listen to Irons purring his sinister, pack-a-day voice anytime and watch Rampling’s Rosa Klebb She Wolf of Siberia thing all day long. Unfortunately, they’re only about 10 percent of the movie. The other 90 percent is a mix of utterly pedestrian and shamelessly prurient. Like some nefarious KGB amnesia serum, Red Sparrow mostly evaporates from your memory five minutes after you walk out of the theater.