Red Sparrow has been compared to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but that entirely undersells Sparrow. Where Tinker was droll and predictable, Sparrow actually carries along the thread of an interesting story to keep the audience engaged. Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours, one thing the film is not is in a hurry. It saves action sequences for special occasions rather than being wall-to-wall explosions, there’s paced tracking shots among exotic locations, and character development is done in longhand rather than a montage.
Based on the book of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, the story follows Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (played by Jennifer Lawrence). After her ability to dance is taken away, she gets swept up into a special espionage agent training school to become a Red Sparrow. Sparrows are trained to use seduction and personal persuasion to build trust enough to extract information. They have a heightened level of ability to discern others’ motives.
The story is paced, but never feels long. Audience members who enjoy watching the various subtle aspects of cat and mouse just as much as a car chase or powering through a torture scene will enjoy this one. For every stretch of time watching Dominika walking through Vienna or Moscow, there’s an ultra-violent fight or torture scene.
As a warning, there are several rape scenes over the course of the film, and there are elements of the torture scenes that are definitely up several notches from what we typically get in anything shy of an installment from Saw. But there are compelling plot twists, and there’s always some question of who is double-crossing whom and who has the upper hand at any particular moment.
Where Atomic Blonde was the current standard for action-centric spy capers, Red Sparrow is cut from the cat-and-mouse cloth. Both have their pros and cons, and both give us a great female lead agent, and there’s no missing how close this film is to just being a Black Widow origin story. While wildly different in tone and pacing, Sparrow does fit in nicely with Blonde, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Casino Royale, and Nikita (the 1990 original).
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