Former CIA officer Jason Matthews’ first novel, “Red Sparrow,” had its movie rights purchased for a seven-figure amount before it was published. It blended basic tradecraft with steamy sex scenes, and was successful once published, winning both the Edgar and ITW Thriller awards for the best first novel. You could say it was an appetizing read as well, since Matthews mentioned a specific dish in each chapter and included a recipe for it at the end of the chapter. Matthews has since created a trilogy for the characters; the final book, “The Kremlin Candidate,” has them looking for a Russian agent about to be appointed to a high position in the US government. (Hmm)
Now the movie version of Red Sparrow is in theaters, with Jennifer Lawrence in the main role. Although heavily promoted, it couldn’t overcome the massive appeal of Black Panther even in its third week, ending up far below in second-place. That wouldn’t be horrible, but a major film needs to make at least half its budget in the first week to have a hope of breaking even. Red Sparrow made about a quarter of its estimated budget, which doesn’t include the substantial publicity costs. The movie has some strengths, including a first-rate cast and a topical subject. However, the script by Justin Haythe is like a paint-by-numbers picture – it’s got the colors but it doesn’t blend. Haythe’s last two screenplays were the Johnny Depp bomb The Lone Ranger and the terminally sick A Cure for Wellness – not a good track record.
The plot has ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) pulled into the world of espionage by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) after a broken leg ends her career on stage. The uncle’s name is Vanya, which I hope was a purposeful nod to Anton Chekov, though I have my doubts. Dominika’s forced to become a Sparrow, an agent trained to use her body to manipulate and compromise men. While Vanya believes in her abilities, the matron of the school (Charlotte Rampling) and a military intelligence general (Jeremy Irons) have their doubts.
Contemporaneously, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has a meeting in a Moscow park with a highly-placed mole in the Kremlin, only to have it interrupted by the police patrolling for vice offenses. Nate blows his cover to save the mole and manages to make it to safety at the embassy, but he’s forced to leave the country. Several months later, the mole surfaces and signals he wants to meet Nate. Nate heads to Hungary, as close to Russia as he can get, to re-establish contact. But also coming to Budapest is Dominika, fresh from Sparrow School, assigned to get Nash to give her the name of the mole.
The movie wants to follow in the vein of John le Carre, but instead Haythe can only manage a Robert Ludlum potboiler. Not the Matt Damon Bourne Identity kind of Ludlum, since that movie took the first chapter of the book and then re-wrote everything else. I mean the real Ludlum who was to spy novels what Jacqueline Suzann was to literature. (If you really want to see the difference, watch the 1988 Bourne Identity two-part TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain and Jaclyn Smith, but you’d be better off just to trust me on this.) Haythe is a blunt instrument when it comes to writing. You wonder why spying is so hard because the agents in this film figure out who’s on each side apparently just by looking at each other. Later in the movie, a stakeout is ruined by the most obvious mistake that no actual agent would ever make.
The movie is not helped by Boris and Natasha Russian accents on the part of some of the actors. At one point, Lawrence asks Edgerton how he knew she was Russian, and you expect Edgerton to say, “Well, duh.” For much of the movie, Lawrence the actress seems as confused about what’s going on as her character. The script eliminates one of the more interesting aspects of Dominika from the book: she sees people’s emotions as colors which allows her to discern their characters, a play on a real condition called synesthesia. It could have led to some interesting visuals and given Lawrence more to work with in the role.
Director Francis Lawrence had worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on the Hunger Games films after Gary Ross did the first. He was a music video director before switching to features with films like Constantine, I Am Legend, and Water for Elephants. Lawrence is strong on visuals and action, but his style is straightforward. The best-directed spy films, like Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Philip Noyce’s The Quiet American, or the granddaddy of them all, Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, create their tension through nuance and small moments that eventually loom large. Watching those movies is like slowly sipping a glass of exceptional wine that leaves you satisfied at the end. Red Sparrow is more like several shots of vodka that leave your senses dulled by the experience.
A caution: the film has a fair amount of nudity, sex, and violence. It can be justified given the material, but rather than use suggestion Red Sparrow dives in headlong, reveling in it. A torture scene with a skin graft slicer is particularly cringeworthy. Overall, Red Sparrow isn’t as bad as it could have been, but it’s no where near as good as it should have been.