For quite awhile now, fans have been clamoring for Black Widow to have a solo Marvel movie. The Russian spy character has been a part of the Marvel Cinematic universe since 2010, debuting in the second entry of the Marvel franchise,Iron Man 2. It’s easy to see why Black Widow has become such a favorite character, and why the idea of a movie about her would be so popular among fans. Even though we’ve learned bits and pieces about her life before The Avengers, Black Widow’s time in Russia is still mostly a mystery to us, and it seems like a Russian spy thriller with an attractive female lead, is a great formula for a hit at the box office. Red Sparrow is, in fact, a spy thriller that takes place in Russia, and has an attractive female lead as the star of the movie as she learns to successfully become an agent for the Russian intelligence. But those that we’re hoping that Red Sparrow would fill in that niche until Marvel finally did get around to making the official Black Widow prequel, will likely be disappointed by what Red Sparrow has to offer.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a ballet dancer in modern day Russia who supports both herself and her mother with her dancing. When a career ending injury happens one night on stage, Dominika is left without a way to continue supporting her sick mother. Her uncle (Uncle Ivan played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who works for Russian Intelligence offers her an opportunity to seduce a Russian politician and switch out his phone with a decoy phone that the state can track. Dominika agrees, though it turns out that her role in the operation is not so much that of a seductress but that of bait. The politician is killed by Russian Intelligence, and ending the life of Dominika is questioned as well as there can be no witnesses to what happened.
Ivan instead gives his niece a chance to become a full time operative for Russian Intelligence, sending her to train as a Sparrow, a specific type of Russian agent who learn to seduce their targets to extract the information they need. Seeing as it’s the only way to earn enough money to care for her mother (and given the fact the the other option is execution) Dominika agrees to be trained as a Sparrow.
As we’re learning about Dominika, a parallel story featuring a CIA operative named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who has been working with a secret contact inside Russian Intelligence. When a simple meetup goes wrong, Nash accidentally alerts the Russians that they have a mole within their midst, though nobody, other than Nash, knows who it is. Nash is pulled from Russia for safety reasons, though his contact goes underground making it impossible for the CIA to try and contact him, and forcing them to rely on Nash to try and reestablish a connection. Russia, meanwhile is also attempting to learn the identity of the CIA contact and task Dominika with seducing Nash to get the information out of him.
Though Red Sparrow describes itself as a spy thriller, the biggest downfall of the movie is how very little of it would actually be considered thrilling. The movie carries itself like a movie with a complex and intricate plot, but really, the whole thing boils down very simply and ends up feeling very straightforward. It’s as though the movie feels like it’s working it’s way up to a big twist, but in reality, the movie is working toward one of two possible outcomes and the audience is just waiting to find out which outcome ends up happening. And the emphasis there really should be on the waiting part. At almost two and a half hours, Red Sparrow takes it’s time with the plot. While there are scenes here and there where the slow, methodical pace really adds to the tension or the tone of a scene, there are several more moments where it doesn’t add anything to what’s happening on the screen, yet the movie commits itself to being just as slow and methodical then as well.
The aspect of the Russian seduction spy school, something that was used heavily in the advertisement for this movie, is dropped quite early in the story. It’s a shame because it was the most interesting part of the movie. However, Dominika quickly excels at school (seemingly for no reason other than she’s the main character) and moves on to the “real world mission” that takes up the bulk of the movie. It feels like there’s a lot of interesting aspects of the movie that are left unexplored with the secret spy school, that instead get traded in for a plot that doesn’t feel like it has nearly as many interesting things to explore.
It would be easy to add on complaints about the Russian accents here as well. Like any movie where a well known movie star uses an accent that’s not their own, Lawrence’s Russian accent can seem jarring for the first few minutes of the movie, but it’s easy enough to adapt to and isn’t really a distraction. Jennifer Lawrence is clearly capable of carrying a movie like this. She has the starpower to command your attention whenever she’s on screen. As she moves away from the big franchises she’s been a part of (The Hunger Games and X-Men), these movies will be a test to see how well Jennifer Lawrence can carry a movie on her own. As the star of Red Sparrow it’s not a lacking performance, and it’s easy to see why this script would have drawn her to the project. But while there are several good moments in the movie, and moments worth your time and attention, it feels like these moments don’t completely add up to a fully engaging movie.