It is surprising to see a director/muse pairing such as Francis Lawrence and Jennifer Lawrence produce such middling results. After teaming up for the final two Hunger Games films, Red Sparrow finds them tackling similar territory albeit dressed up as a lurid espionage thriller. Competently directed and featuring a very game and sexy J-Law, Red Sparrow never finds its groove.
Katniss, I mean Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), is a star ballerina as the film opens. That is until a terrible injury leaves her leg severely broken and without a career. She is trying to take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) and provide the nurses she needs so when her pervy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a job to become a Sparrow, she takes it. Sparrows are an army of young, attractive Russians who serve the state by any means.
After a necessary training montage, she embarks on her first mission which brings her to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). The name Nate Nash might suggest a comic book tone here but the film is closely aligned with a Paul Verhoeven film. This is particularly true in regards to the film's misguided sexual politics. Lawrence herself has said she felt empowered in this role but the film constantly ogles her and asks her to strip. Sure she turns her sexuality into a weapon at times but not before the audience gets plenty of time to stare at her body.
Red Sparrow is filled with twists and turns that might mean more if the film engaged more fully in its trashy premise. It is like someone saw Atomic Blonde and wanted to make a film with more female empowerment and more female nudity. These elements feel at odds with each other and in the end, make something like Atomic Blonde more feminist in hindsight.
All of this isn't to say the film doesn't have some moments. There is a style to some scenes, including a brutal, bloody knife fight. However, these moments come and go without injecting the plot with a much-needed sense of danger and surprise. The film drags on and on, high on its own cleverness but never fully embracing its trashier elements.