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The reviews are in for the Jennifer Lawrence-led spy thriller Red Sparrow, and the consensus is that the movie is more style than substance.
In the film, based on Jason Matthews’ novel of the same name, Oscar winner Lawrence teams up with a familiar director — Francis Lawrence, who worked with her on three of the four Hunger Games films. Red Sparrow centers on a Russian spy trained to use seduction to gain information. Following a dramatic injury, former ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is pushed to enroll in the fictional Sparrow School, a brutal spy program that trains people to wield their bodies as weapons of the Russian government (“Your body belongs to the state”). In real life, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election bolsters the otherwise fictional storyline, reminding audiences that the Cold War — as the film makes clear — is not fully dead.
In early reviews, Red Sparrow has a 57 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, critic John DeFore predicted that Red Sparrow will be generally disappointing to audiences. “Striking a sometimes uneasy balance between trust-no-one espionage and sensationalism, Sparrow seems likely to attract a fairly large audience but leave few moviegoers fully satisfied,” he wrote. Though Lawrence “performs unimpeachably,” she is clearly “better than the material.” He also expressed frustration with a climatic scene in which “the filmmakers require Dominika to do something very stupid and very implausible” so that an antagonist can live a little longer.
“Given current geopolitical realities, we’re probably due for a big wave of Russophobic genre cinema. Red Sparrow helps get the ball rolling, but here’s hoping we see better before Putin & Co’s devastating use of social media makes all this one-on-one spycraft seem laughably quaint,” DeFore wrote.
To Sean P. Means of The Salt Lake Tribune, director Francis Lawrence “does right by [Jennifer Lawrence] but has a mess to contend with everywhere else.” He describes the script as “a drab slice of le Carré-light, only occasionally punctuated with joyless sexual content and nasty torture sequences.”
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, who generally enjoyed the film, praised Lawrence’s performance — she “manages the tricky proposition of adopting a Russian accent with a surprising degree of effectiveness” — and notes that the acting carried an otherwise unremarkable script: “Every scene is defined by whispery exchanges and stern looks that often threaten to veer into camp, or boredom, but the considerable talent on display is its constant saving grace.”
The movie doesn’t just conjure up memories of the 2016 election. To Kohn, the “queasy blend of eroticism and tactical discussion” is also “especially resonant when conversations about exploiting sex for power couldn’t be louder.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt also liked the movie, but asked: “What does Sparrow bring to the cineplex that hasn’t been done before, and better?” As she noted, “There wasn’t much to place the movie in the year 2018. There was hardly any cool technology — one plot point literally uses floppy disks at one point — or fresh take, style-wise, on what is a pretty le Carré-crusted genre at this point.”
ScreenRant’s Sandy Schaefer summed up her thoughts this way: “[The film] is more an exercise in style over substance. Anchored by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, Red Sparrow is a slow-burn spy/seductress thriller that’s shiny on the surface, yet lacking in depth.”
Jesse Hassenger of The A.V. Club would agree: “[Red Sparrow is] about halfway between Atomic Blonde and a Focus Features late-summer thriller, which more or less fits the Francis Lawrence aesthetic. He brings to this material what he brought to The Hunger Games: a sense of style that feels constrained by obligations to hit a certain number of plot points.” Though Red Sparrow is “a lavishly costumed, location-enhanced thriller,” it “carries itself along briskly enough (even with a 139-minute running time, the most indulgent thing about it), but it’s never especially brain-twisting or nerve-wracking.”
Time Out New York‘s Tomris Laffly wrote in a 3 out of 5-star review that “a stony-faced Jennifer Lawrence leads the way in the bleak, excessively long Red Sparrow, which sets off promisingly but tangles into a confusing clump.”
The Guardian‘s Benjamin Lee tried to assess where the film fits in with the actress’ recent filmography: “While Passengers was a weird, unsalvageable mess and Mother! an intriguing failure, Red Sparrow is not exactly the home run Lawrence could do with right now. But it’s far from a disaster. There’s a curious perversity that rears its head early in the film during a startlingly grisly shower scene and throughout, there’s a shocking willingness to go to the very edge of what’s acceptable in a contemporary studio movie. There’s full-frontal nudity, violent rape, implied incest, graphic torture and a darkly sexual atmosphere that leads to a number of head-spinningly nasty moments.”
Audiences can see Red Sparrow for themselves starting Friday, March 2.
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