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February 28, 2018

Red Sparrow Recalls Classic Spy Flicks, But More Sex & Violence

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Written by: Gregg "Wonderllama" Snider
Tags: , , , , , ,
Photo Credit: Murray Close; TM & © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

A young prima ballerina with the Bolshoi is forced into service to a shadowy Russian agency. She’s sent to a brutal training facility, taught to use her sexuality and intelligence to exploit weakness in others. She meets an American during the Cold War and her motivations become murky.

Her name is Dominika Egorova, better known as Red Sparrow.

Wait, what? Isn’t that the back-story of Natasha Romanova, better known as Black Widow?

While Marvel’s Russian-spy-turned-SHIELD-agent has a similar origin story, that’s where the similarities to the new post-Cold War spy thriller, Red Sparrow, end. Trailers lean heavily on the elements you’d expect in a Black Widow movie: a beautiful Soviet femme fatale, high-speed chases through Eastern European cities, and action-packed shoot-outs.

Trailers, however, can be deceptive. Red Sparrow is very far from a superhero movie. Instead, it’s a layered psycho-sexual thriller, a tense, labyrinthine slow burn, more akin to the serpentine No Way Out than to the action-heavy Jason Bourne series.

Director Francis Lawrence commented in an interview with ScreenRant on possible comparisons to Black Widow, saying “This is not pulled from Black Widow, this is pulled from Red Sparrow, you know, it’s written by a guy who was in the CIA.” He went on to say “This is a thriller, it’s not action, again it’s not gadgetry. It’s a hard-R. There’s violence, it’s a bit perverse, it’s suspenseful, a lot of intrigue. It’s a different kind of spy film.”

That’s an accurate assessment. The action is integral to the story, but not a major factor, and the most sophisticated gadget is a device used to remove skins from animal hides. Where Marvel trades on superpowers and CGI, Red Sparrow goes for sleight of hand and character motivations.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Egorova, a talented young ballerina with a promising career. After a painful betrayal, she’s left with no choice but to work for her uncle Vanya, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, a dead-ringer for a young Vladimir Putin. Once entangled in Soviet intelligence operatives’ plans, she’s forced to attend a merciless school for young Sparrows, a cadre of highly trained, deep cover agents tasked with seducing enemy agents and exploiting them for Mother Russia.

Consummate character actress Charlotte Rampling (Broadchurch) turns in a severe performance as Matron of the Sparrows’ school. Her proclamation that “the Cold War isn’t over. It merely shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces. The West is soft, only interested in their shopping and social media” is a perfect snapshot of the current global realpolitik. As a young, beautiful, and expendable asset, Egorova is sent to Budapest to turn a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton). Things get predictably complicated once they meet, setting up the twists and turns of the third act.

Cast flies high
Beyond the clever scripting,
Red Sparrow’s strength is its cast. Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds are both formidable as senior Soviet spymasters of the old school. Mary Louise Parker is perfectly cast as a boozy, dissolute US diplomat. Jennifer Lawrence plays to her strengths, portraying Egorova alternately with a hollowed-out, dead-eyed flatness and with cold, ruthless intensity. While none of the main actors are Russian, they do a serviceable job with accents, rarely dropping into cartoonishly exaggerated Boris & Natasha territory. Either Jennifer Lawrence has studied ballet for years, or CGI body swapping is approaching flawlessness; there are few obvious cutaways or over-the-shoulder shots while she’s dancing on stage, making her performance quite believable.

Red Sparrow earns its hard-R rating. One scene features an ugly bit of torture, thankfully conveyed more through the victim’s screams than graphically. One of the few action scenes is short and brutal; realistic rather than drawn out or fetishized, with none of the exaggerated fight sequences common to action thrillers, and all the more effective for it. Sex and sexuality plays a key role throughout the movie. There are short scenes with full nudity, male and female. Willingness to accede to any sexual degradation in service to Mother Russia determines which students will make good Sparrows. There are graphic scenes of sexual violence, including an attempted rape scene. For the most part, they are integral to the the story and far from lurid, making strong points about control and power, but they can be painful to watch all the same. Power and control are major themes; who has it, how it is used and abused, and above all, what people are willing to do and to endure for it. It’s an often fascinating look at the sex-power dynamic, especially when seen through the lens of the #MeToo movement.

For all of its superficial similarities to Black Widow, Red Sparrow is ultimately a suspenseful spy thriller in the mold of classics like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or many of John LeCarre’s novels. It’s a tense, dramatic, slow-build and often brutal film centered around the ongoing game of nations between the spymasters of the ex-Soviet Union and the CIA. If you like your spy movies long on subtext and fairly well-disguised plot twists, Red Sparrow is a worthwhile addition to the genre.


  • Given that the similarities are mostly superficial, it seems unlikely that Red Sparrow will preempt Marvel and be responsible for preventing the rumored Black Widow standalone movie in the next few years.
  • As mentioned, Red Sparrow earns its hard R-rating, due to full frontal nudity, sexual violence, and torture in service of the story. If this type of material is not your cup of tea, I strongly suggest not seeing it.

Red Sparrow (20th Century Fox; rated R): B


About the Author

Gregg "Wonderllama" Snider



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