Due to circumstances that Red Sparrow takes way too long to set up, Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian spy, one who is trying to find out the name of a mole from an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton), and who has been given instructions to follow that lead as far as it’ll take her. Of course, given that this is a spy movie, it means teasing a defection to the American side, and with her constantly playing with whether or not she’s done it. We don’t know, nobody else knows, some people know things that other people don’t know, and it’s a whole mess of information, really.
But the crux of the movie comes down to Dominika trying to play each side in hopes of getting information to use to try to get new information out of the other side. Rinse and repeat. It allows for continued suspense, because we figure at some point she’ll get caught, but are never sure when or by whom, and it keeps us constantly on guard and looking for clues as to where her true loyalty lies. She may or may not have romantic feelings for the American, and she may or may not feel patriotic about her home country.
If it manages to keep you on your toes, it’ll be successful. The other details are largely inconsequential. If your mind is engaged and you’re thrilled, the spy movie works. And it’s for this reason that Red Sparrow is not a success. It’s too long and bloated to achieve this effect in its audience. It runs for 140 minutes, and by the time it finally comes to a close, you’ll probably have stopped caring.
That’s too bad, because there’s a lot to like about Red Sparrow. The acting is pretty strong—Jennifer Lawrence is a reliable lead, Joel Edgerton is a good side character, and actors like Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Mary-Louise Parker come and go throughout the film and are solid. The score is wonderful. It’s got some occasionally visually dynamic cinematography, and it doesn’t shy away from some of its more mature or violent content.
It’s at times shocking what the filmmakers put its characters through. That might turn some viewers off, even. But in the world of the SVR, torture is inevitable. And characters wind up tortured, often quite brutally. Early on, prior to joining the intelligence community, Dominika learns someone has wronged her and she takes vengeance into her own hands. She’s not someone to betray. That’s true to her character for the entire movie, and trying to figure out if she feels betrayed is part of the fun. It’d be even more enjoyable if the film had tighter pacing.
Red Sparrow is a spy thriller that loses a lot of the goodwill it tries to build because it’s too long and paced too leisurely. It takes a long time to get going, and once it does it acts in fits and starts. The plot is, in theory, pretty decent—generic spy stuff, but it could work—the acting is strong, it’s often pretty, the score is great, and it’s nice to see it not shy away from its more mature content. But it’s overlong and understuffed, and that takes away from the majority of suspense and atmosphere it hopes to achieve, effectively rendering it a waste.
Conclusion: Red Sparrow is a disappointing spy thriller.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of these things and want one more violent than usual, maybe it’ll be worth your time. For everyone else? Probably not.