Archive for March 10, 2018

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

I’ve heard that some stage actors pick out a random member of the audience and play directly to that person as their personal method of getting over stage fright. Pretty much that’s what the team behind Red Sparrow did for me with this movie seemingly designing something with spies and really great music, including a 12-minute ballet sequence at the beginning that comes close to defining what film music is and should be for the next three generations. So pretty much, if you think I’m being too soft on…oh never mind, people who seek attention by writing really can’t sustain a huffy There’s the Door/Link to Rotten Tomatoes attitude. Anyway, good movie that I hope tears it up on home video/streaming if you don’t see it in the theater.

Dominika Egorov (Jennifer Lawrence) has the life dancing for the Bolshoi or whatever facsimile created on a soundstage absolutely nowhere near Moscow (IRL the Russian Bear is back to his old tricks, don’t expect film permits). Proof that All About Eve is universal to theater everywhere, the male lead leaps to land wrong on Dominika’s leg for the benefit of the understudy he has sex with ending the prima ballerina’s career. Even though it’s only CGI, the fracture defines ugly and cringe worthy for all filmmaking until whatever martial arts actor taking over for Steven Segal feels safe depicting actual compound (sticking out of skin) fractures again.

Meanwhile, CIA Case Officer Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) meets with an asset in Gorky Park where they’re interrupted by regular old vice cops that mistake the brush pass for a drug deal or perhaps a same sex solicitation. Nash breaks the cardinal rule about real world espionage and fires his Beretta into the ground to distract the cops away from the source, who seems nearly as important as the real life Oleg Penkovski or the fictional Cardinal from Clancy’s The Cardinal in the Kremlin.

Nash gets sent home by the Moscow Embassy before the political mess can get too fraught. Dominika’s uncle, Ivan Egorov (Matthias Schoenarts) suggests to his superiors in the SVR that they send a Sparrow (an operative trained in sexual manipulation) to make contact with Nash attempting to get the name of the highly placed traitor. Believing Dominika to already have the mental toughness for such work, he offers the assistance of his influence with the government to his niece.

Thus begins a sordid tale of sex, rape and espionage leading to a female comeuppance that is generally satisfying largely because Jennifer Lawrence as the star wills it so. It is also the story of a budding romance between Dominika and Nash that might or might not result in her recruitment as a traitor to Mother Russia as part of her desire to get even with the men that routinely use people like whores.

When I think about this movie in my most critical mindset independent of growing up as an avid reader of espionage novels (eventually, I will have to write about John Le Carré’s entire career giving the reader an excellent book learning course in tradecraft), the movie lands in the realm of solid and not as the classic it could have been. I suspect that my quibbles result from Jason Matthews’ originating novel, his first after a long career with the CIA.

The feel and authenticity of the dark and seamy world of human espionage in cities like Budapest and Vienna are undeniable, but I have a suspicion that when I finally read the book that I will find the same minor story structure flaws as the movie has. Dominika needed more mystery entering into the dance with Nash where we don’t exactly know if she really hates the bastards turning Russia into a paranoid aggressor willing to rig any election because democracy is scary or if she’s loyally playing a long game against Western imperialism. I knew because prior to seeing the movie I had perused the dust jacket blurbs for the trio of the books written by Mr. Matthews and the blurb for the sequel kind of gives away what happens between Nash and Dominika.

However, what is actually on screen for this part of the story flops onto the deck creating the impression of fairly straightforward storytelling where Dominika plays the game far straighter with Nash than she does against her uncle Ivan. Because we know that she won’t betray her lover and primary vehicle for vengeance, we perhaps get a solid but middling onscreen relationship that allows reviewers like me to say – “Yeah, worked for me” – and other reviewers to assert a complete lack of chemistry between Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Edgerton. The truth lands solidly in the middle.

The human psychological chess game that we’ve come to expect from most espionage stories of this type picks up when the game isn’t between Nash and Dominika, but between her and Uncle Ivan. Throughout her sex spy training, we see key techniques introduced to enable tracking, skillful tradecraft and hardcore emotional manipulation of targets and then we see Uncle Ivan drop in for a visit. Afterward, we see Dominika do things like grab a drink glass he touched, open bank accounts while asking the Americans for a lot of money and then, by design, we ignore these things while we rush to the next scene with Nash.

The real asset, codenamed Marble, reveals himself to Dominika offering himself as a sacrifice to enhance her double life as a traitor in place because events have proceeded to where either the lady brings back Marble’s name or she takes a bullet from the pissed off Russians. She has other plans that may or may not involve her game against her uncle and you’ll have to see the movie or read the book to learn what happens.

A word about the real world verisimilitude of Russian sex-spionage. The school described has been depicted elsewhere by nearly every interesting novelist or TV writer doing Russian spies. Mister Matthews presumably saw the same classified historical archives as Le Carré and the others. If we assume that these writers either lived it or did their research, then I give the program a high probability of being or having been deadly real. It is a life casual brutality where cadets in the program are degraded in ways sure to piss off feminists now that we live in post-MeToo Land. These stories assert that rape is a training tool designed to create the proper sexually fluid mindset where sex is about the mission and nothing like love nor emotional sentimentality comes anywhere near the operative’s thinking.

This nasty undercurrent shows up in the movie with Jennifer Lawrence choosing to walk right up to the median line of a hard R-rating with the copious amount of movie-safe nudity and sex seen onscreen. Additionally, there is a lot of torture leading to cinematic bullets to the head to dispatch now useless victims of state power. Some viewers are just never going to be okay watching this movie, especially since it really just lands in the middle of storytelling quality where, to steal a Godfather reference, they metaphorically decapitate the horse without getting the results seen in that classic terrifying scene.

Okay, so I’m predisposed to enjoy spies and back-alley espionage as long as the good guys win, but the music that composer James Newton Howard busts out for this movie really ties the room together. Usually film music, even creations of well regarded composers, does its job of tugging the required heartstrings and gets off stage, but this score proved haunting and perfectly tuned to the movie images that I put it in the same category as when I first heard Howard Shore’s work for Fellowship of the Ring, where you know you’ll stream the soundtrack off Spotify forty million times possibly never getting sick of the music.

In sum, we have a solid but not superlative espionage thriller that lucked out with a release date in early March between Black Panther and Wrinkle in Time and directly opposite Death Wish (2018) (see review), the single easiest competitor on the planet in this spring season. The squeamish should just not worry about this one and fans of really great film music will find something to like. A solid rental a few months from now. And with that the review’s over…go home!