The Cold War-worthy spy thriller Red Sparrow is a misfire that doesn’t seem to be able to commit to what it wants to be. It wants to be provocative but serious; however, it lacks the substance to be serious and lacks the conviction to be provocative. It lands in a middle ground between the sleek genre fun of Atomic Blonde and the understated paranoid realism of a Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. By landing in the middle zone, Red Sparrow is that rare boring movie plagued by untapped potential.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a classically trained Russian ballerina that suffers a gruesome injury. Her leering uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her into a state-run school for spies and assassins who specialize in seducing their targets. “Whore school,” as Dominka terms it, is run by the Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who methodically trains her recruits by stripping away every ounce of fear, shame, and defiance. Their bodies belong to the state now, she says, and they will be put to good use for Mother Russia. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is an American spy working in Europe who tries to convince Dominika to switch sides, to take refuge in the United States. Dominika’s superiors order her to get what she can on Nash, find their secret contact, and eliminate them both.
Firstly, Red Sparrow is far too long and far too leisurely paced at a bladder-unfriendly 140-minutes. When things do get interesting, the overall slow pacing has a tendency to sap whatever momentum was starting to emerge. The entire first act should have been condensed down into an opening ten minutes rather than stretching out into 30-some minutes. We don’t need a full half-hour explaining what Dominika’s life was like before her new life as a deadly state-sponsored seductress. We don’t need all that time to see her life as a ballerina, her life caring for her sick mother, and her hesitancy with her first mission before she’s roped into fully accepting her fate. I don’t need this much convincing that her life was better before or that she was trapped into this decision. I don’t care that Lawrence studied ballet for four months. It’s not integral and it’s a deadly start to a story. Once Dominika is at her spy school, that’s when the movie really starts. I was getting awfully sleepy as the movie just seemed to drift along. I know a high school student who saw the movie and said, “I fell asleep at the beginning, and then I woke up later and it was STILL the beginning!”
Another problem is that the parallel storyline about Nash and the Americans is far less interesting. Every time the movie jumps to his perspective, you can feel the movie stalling. A U.S. spy who is pushing against his own brass and the politics of the agency can’t compete with a woman who is thrust into unfamiliar and dangerous missions that test every physical and psychological boundary she knows. When Nash and Dominika cross paths, he finally starts to justify his placement. Much like the delayed first act, though, the extra time setting up his life before he was important was not time well spent. Their relationship together is mean to appeal to Dominika to convince her to flip allegiances. They don’t feel like they really connect, and part of that is the lackluster chemistry between the actors. The emphasis on their romantic relationship is even more moot because Dominika’s real motivation is revenge. She didn’t need a handsome, doe-eyed American man for that to happen.
Where Red Sparrow does work is with its unique, high-pressure, destabilizing training environment. There’s a prurient appeal when it comes to watching the training program for assassins who must strip everything away and use their bodies as a weapon. This is where the film is at its most interesting and its most sensational as far as use of genre elements. There is an uncomfortable amount of stark sexual violence depicted in the movie. I lost track of the number of times Dominika is raped, tortured, sexually assaulted, or assault is attempted upon her. I don’t feel like these moments of sexual violence are glamorized or designed for base titillation; it’s a window into the harsh reality these women face. They have been robbed of their agency, their very sex weaponized. There’s a fascinating story to be told from that perspective and the trials and tribulations within “whore school” are harrowing, shocking, and always intriguing, which makes it even sadder when the filmmakers try and posit an arty sheen of self-seriousness. This is a movie about training spies to seduce the enemy and then prove their skills. This is a movie where the head of the spy school runs a play-by-ply analysis on a student’s use of a handjob. This is not going to be John le Carre, and that’s fine. Rather than embrace its inherently trashy side, Red Sparrow tries to stay above the icky stuff, while still indulging in a heaping helping of blunt sexual violence. It’s truly strange. It’s like the filmmakers felt they were making something sober and thoughtful and didn’t want to taint their award-caliber production with too much emphasis on the thing that makes it most interesting. And then instead they threw in a lot more sexual violence, because that’s also serious, and that’s the kind of thing serious movies do to be serious.
Lawrence (mother!) is once again a strong anchor for the audience, even if her Russian accent falters from scene-to-scene. This is a very different role for Lawrence and requires her to simultaneously put much of herself on display physically while finding ways to hide the inner life and thinking of her character from the audience. There’s an interesting character here buried under layers. After her accident, Dominika viciously injures her dance partner and his new leading lady, and it previews the cruelty that Dominika is capable of. Much of the press in the lead up has focused on Jennifer Lawrence’s nudity, and it’s there, okay, but it’s never really emphasized. There is one sequence in particular where she disrobes and taunts her would-be rapist to try and ravish her available body, humiliating him, and it’s one of the few scenes where Dominika turns her body around as a tool of empowerment. Granted, it’s within the prism of a school that’s practically state-run sex slavery, so let’s not get carried away with larger feminist implications. Lawrence keeps the audience guessing scene to scene as she transforms from setting, slipping into different identities that suit her, thinking on her feet, and being, frankly, adult.
There are a slew of good supporting actors tasked with saying ridiculous and foreboding things, like Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress of “whore school” and Jeremy Irons as a high-level Russian spymaster. What really catch the attention are the accents. We have a group of actors from the U.S., Britain, Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany portraying Russians, and with Edgerton, an Aussie portraying an American. As you might expect, the Ruskie accents can be a bit thick and obviously phony at times.
It’s not too difficult to see the kind of movie that Red Sparrow could have been. It even previews it from time to time, providing a glimpse into an alternative version of the movie that decides to take ownership of its more sensational, sexualized elements with genre pride. Red Sparrow feels like an out-of-time throwback to the erotic thrillers of the go-go 90s. I mean does Russia even need to train sexy assassins any more in the information age where a troll farm and some Facebook ads can get the job done? Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games movies) has a controlled, precise Fincher-like visual acumen that gives the film a sleek and sterile allure to the spy shenanigans. It’s a nice-looking movie to watch, but without a better story, let alone a verdict on tone, it’s a nice-looking movie that runs self-indulgently too long. Consider it a screensaver you forgot was still going on but with Jennifer Lawrence nudity.
Nate’s Grade: C
The story behind the Justice League movie is one of turmoil and turnover. Zack Snyder has been the cinematic voice for the DC film universe (DCU) and, if you listen to enough critics and fans, the weight holding down the franchise. Justice League began filming in the spring of 2016, which means they had a considerable lead time before release. Either they went into production with a script they were unhappy with or they learned it. A year later, in the spring of 2017, Snyder bowed out of his directorial duties to spend more time with his family in the aftermath of his daughter’s suicide. Enter Joss Whedon, the wunderkind behind Marvel’s record-breaking Avengers. The studio was unhappy with Snyder’s rough-cut, deeming the footage “useable,” and tapped Whedon to make drastic reshoots. He rewrote the film enough to earn a writing credit from the WGA. Complicating the already pricey reshoots was star Henry Cavill’s mustache, a holdover from the filming of Mission: Impossible 6. He wasn’t permitted to shave his ‘stach, and so Warner Bros. was forced to pay likely millions… to digitally erase Cavill’s facial hair (DCU is 0-2 when it comes to mustaches this year). The final product is being met with great fanfare, hope, and curiosity. If anybody could save this project it’s Whedon, right? Well Justice League could have been renamed Super Hero Fatigue: The Movie.
Months (?) after the death of Superman (Cavill), Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) is traveling the world and recruiting a very specific group of job candidates. He needs serious help to combat an oncoming alien adversary, Steppenwolf (voiced by Cirian Hinds). The cosmic Big Bad is looking for three special boxes, a.k.a. mother boxes, to destroy the world. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) helps Batman convince the half-man/half-machine hybrid Cyborg (Ray Fisher), underwater dweller Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and hyperactive speedster Flash (Ezra Miller) to form a league of sorts to thwart Steppenwolf.
Aggressively bland, lazy, and unmemorable, I was genuinely left questioning whether Justice League was somehow worse because it wasn’t worse. It’s not the aggravating stew that was Batman vs. Superman or Suicide Squad, but those weren’t exactly difficult hurdles to clear. To put it in another colorful analogy: while it may not be a flaming dumpster fire, it’s just a dumpster, something you wouldn’t give any mind to because, hey, it’s just a normal dumpster, and why would you even want to spend time looking at that anyway? That’s Justice League for you, a DCU super hero film that’s better by default and still disappointing to the point that you wish it would be mercy killed to spare us a prolonged death rattle. This movie is ground down to the raw pulp of a super hero movie. It lacks personality. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before from a modern super hero film. An ensemble of poorly developed characters must band together to stop a dumb villain from world annihilation with a giant energy portal in the sky. There have been now five DCU films in this sputtering cinematic universe and three movies fit that formulaic description. Even the 2015 Fantastic Four remake followed this. The draw of this film is its mythical heroes, yet they are so lazily developed that we rarely feel any sense of awe or reverence with them. The cast chemistry is relatively strong and the actors have been well chosen, but let’s go person-by-person in this league to determine just how poorly the story serves them.
Batman has become the Nick Fury of this new post-Superman world, taking charge assembling a team to combat a more dire, powerful alien threat. He’s the least super in many regards and has fleeting moments contemplating his mortality, but just when you think they might give the older Batman some depth, they pull back. His biggest relationship is with Wonder Woman and their central conflict feels contrived. He’s angry at her for not getting more involved (hey, Wonder Woman, you got out there for WWI but sat out the Holocaust?). It feels like a strange managerial tiff. Affleck (Live by Night) seems to have gotten more growly and smug. Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) scowls and scoffs. Considering they’ve each lead a DCU movie, we should be more attached to them in this story. He’s not fun to be around and neither is she. The new members have some degree of promise.
Aquaman is a gruff, shaggy, tattooed loner embodied by Jason Momoa, and his performance works better than the character does. Momoa (Game of Thrones) is charismatic as a wild man but he comes across as a fraternity jock. His cocky, carefree persona and aesthetic are trying too hard to re-imagine Aquaman as a sexy superhero for today. The underwater action scene in Atlantis is so cumbersomely filmed and staged that I think I realized, in that moment, how visually dreary underwater fight scenes are. There goes any last shred of interest in the solo Aquaman film coming in 2018. Cyborg is basically a modern Frankenstein story and should have had affecting characterization about the battle over reclaiming his humanity. Instead he becomes the plot equivalent of a Swiss army knife, able to open any locked device or technological obstacle.
The Flash/Barry Allen is the best part of the film by default (a familiar term in this review). Miller’s (Perks of Being a Wallflower) extra jubilant performance feels like a course correction from the criticism of how unflinchingly gloomy BvS was. He’s the stars-in-his-eyes rookie who is also a fanboy first, geeking out about getting to work with legends. It’s not just that the fanboy-as-hero angle was already tackled better by Marvel in Tom Holland’s newest edition of Spider-Man, it’s also that the film doesn’t know when to stop. Barry Allen has to quip for every occasion. While some belie his insecurity and nervousness about being promoted to the front lines of hero work, several are forced. The coolest thing he can do is run so fast time slows down, yet we’ve already seen this displayed better and with more witty panache in the recent X-Men films with Quicksilver. Flash is the only character with anything resembling an arc, and this amounts to little more than not being as terrible at fighting and getting a job. He makes his dad proud… by getting a job, and this is sadly the best example of a character arc in Justice League.
Another course correction was ditching overly complicated plotting for simplification, which can be a virtue. With Justice League, simplicity gives way to a dispirited lack of ambition and effort. The plot is thusly: Batman has to recruit a team to stop a Big Bad from getting three boxes buried around the world. Perhaps some will characterize this as a facetious oversimplification, but that’s really all that’s going on for two hours. The only other significant plot turn is the resurrection of Superman. The concluding image of BvS was the dirt hovering over Clark Kent’s casket, heavily implying he was coming back, so this really shouldn’t be a spoiler. The heroes suddenly decide the mother boxes can bring Superman back, and they know how to do it, and then just do it, without any setup. If it had been Cyborg who came up with this plan since he shares the alien technology that could have made some degree of sense. No, it’s Bruce Wayne who comes up with this idea, a man with no experience with alien technology. The heroes use one of the magic mother boxes to bring Superman back from the dead and then, inexplicably, leave it behind for our villain to capture. Literally the characters look over their shoulders and, whoops, a giant energy vortex has sucked up the final item needed to destroy the world. Maybe one of you should have had somebody watching that important thing.
There are other moments that speak to the troubles of simplicity leading to laziness. The opening sequence with Wonder Woman involves a group of criminals taking hostages in a bank. Oh, these are sophisticated bank robbers you might guess. No, these are, in their own outlandish words, “reactionary terrorists,” and they’re here to set off a bomb. Why did you have to enter the bank, let alone take hostages, and call attention to yourselves then? Would a bevy of car bombs not get the job done? These guys are on screen just to be dispatched by Wonder Woman, but at least put some effort into them. Here’s another example of the effects of oversimplification. Steppenwolf’s base of operations is an Eastern European/Russian bloc city in the wake of an abandoned nuclear facility. We see one desperate family fret over the flying Steppenwolf hench-demons and barricade themselves in their home. We then keep cutting back to them again and again. Will they have a greater importance? Is the final mother box to be found underneath their home? No, they are merely an on-the-ground a perspective and offer no insights, complications, or interest. We just keep checking in with them as if they are the most irrelevant war correspondent. When the climactic battle ensues, they’re the sole lives we see in danger from the epic fighting.
The villain is also a severe liability, as Steppenwolf feels plucked from a mid 2000s video game. He feels like a mini-boss from a God of War game. Not a boss battle, a mini-boss. His entire character design is ugly and resembls a goat. He may be twelve feet tall or whatever he is but he is completely unremarkable and nonthreatening. He wants to bring about the end of the world by collecting his three world-destroying MacGuffins and making them cross the streams. His back-story happens midway through the film and is shockingly a rip-off of the Cate Blanchett-narrated prologue from The Lord of the Rings. All the races of the world and beyond teamed up against this dumb dude and then they took possession of his source of power, the three boxes to rule them all, and divided them up among the different races for safety. They’re even dressed like Middle Earth fantasy characters. They foolishly split up the boxes in a way that the bad guy would know exactly where they are if he ever came back. This lame villain is also hampered with a lame back-story. I don’t understand what about this character makes him invincible in the first half and what changes to make him beatable in the second half. His powers and potential weaknesses are ill defined and you too will struggle to work up any interest for what may be one of the most boring and useless villains in super hero film history. According to my pal Ben Bailey, Steppenwolf makes Malakeith (Christopher Eccleston) of Thor 2 look like Loki (Tom Hiddelston) in Thor 2.
Justice League feels like two movies indelicately grafted together, and if you have a trained eye for cinematography you’ll easily be able to spot the difference between the Snyder parts and the Whedon parts (final product looks 70 percent Snyder, 30 percent Whedon). Snyder is much more the visual stylist so his camera arrangements are far more dynamic, and his cinematography also makes more use of space within the frame, especially from the foreground and background. His scenes also have a more crisp, filmic look. By contrast, the Whedon scenes feel overly clumsy and with too much strained humor. The Whedon humor holds on a beat longer, as if it’s waiting for a canned laughter response to clear. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) remarks about how Superman smells, Martha Kent (Diane Lane) drops a malapropism about her son calling Lois the “thirstiest reporter,” Barry Allen’s inability to grasp what is brunch, which is the only thing shoehorned into the middle of Snyder footage. Then the brunch joke is brought up again in the first post-credit scene, which had me convinced that Whedon was going to produce some sort of meta moment with the Justice League final post-credit scene mirroring The Avengers, with the team out enjoying a casual meal together. Not only do I think I enjoyed the Snyder parts better but I think I also enjoyed the humor of the Snyder parts better.
The color correction is also completely different. Check out the Justice League trailers and you’ll see two different climaxes, one before Whedon that takes place in Snyder’s typical landscape of diluted grays and blues, and another after Whedon that looks to be set on Mars. An unintended consequence of altering the color correction so decisively is that the costumes suffer. These outfits were clearly designed for the landscape of colors for Snyder’s darker vision. Whedon’s brightening up makes the costumes look like discount cosplay. It’s not that the Snyder parts are that much better, it’s that the Whedon parts aren’t that great.
The action sequences are just as unmemorable as the rest of the movie. Action sequences need variation, they need mini-goals, and they need multiple points of action. There’s a reason many film climaxes involve different pairs or groups fighting different villains. It keeps the action fresh, involves all of the characters in meaningful ways, and provides more payoffs. The action becomes more dynamic and complex and simply entertaining. The action in Justice League is thoroughly underwhelming. With the exception of Cyborg being a hacker plot device, none of the characters use their powers in integral ways. All they do is punch and jump. When that happens the heroes are too interchangeable. They also don’t seem to do anything different in the third act nor does the climax require them to do anything different, so their victory as a team feels perfunctory and arbitrary. The special effects feel unfinished and unpolished for a $300 million movie. A sequence set on Wonder Woman’s home island looks like it was taken from a cheesy Dynasty Warriors video game. A montage during the conclusion has shockingly bad CGI of the Flash running in a goofy, gangly, leg-failing way that made me doubt Whedon’s eyesight. The most hilarious special effect, possibly of all time, is the fake Superman upper lip. It kept me analyzing every Cavill mouth I saw. His upper lip looked too waxy with shine and indented too widely. We are not there yet my friends for realistic mustache removal technology. We’ll just have to go back to old-fashioned razors and rue this primitive existence of ours.
Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad have already conditioned audiences to expect the worst, and the fact that Justice League is better may make some mistakenly believe this is a good super hero adventure. It’s not. While not the spectacular failure of its predecessors, this is extraordinarily forgettable and thoroughly underwhelming from top to bottom. I think I might have actually preferred Joss Whedon not being involved and simply releasing the full Zack Snyder cut. It would have been stylistically more coherent. Much of the Whedon reshoots do not feel like they are for the better. To be fair, he came in late and this franchise behemoth had already gone too far to fully alter its fate. There are small moments that work but the big moments are what fail. This movie is missing setups, payoffs, and character arcs. It’s missing pathos and emotion. It’s missing memorable action sequences that are exciting and varied. It’s missing basic internal logic. It’s missing a greater relevance. The villain is just an obstacle to be overcome without any larger thematic relevance. I struggled to care about what was happening. Ultimately, the finished product feels like Zack Snyder’s garage sale (“Here’s all the stuff you’re used to and maybe you’re tired of but I’m not gonna put that much effort into this so maybe we can haggle”). And then Joss Whedon bought it all, repackaged it, and sold it back to you, America. As dreadful as the previous movies were they at least had moments that stood out, many of them for the wrong reasons, admittedly. Justice League isn’t as bad and yet is paradoxically less watchable.
Nate’s Grade: C
A nearly three-hour movie about Portuguese Jesuit priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan and struggling with the personal demands and costs of their faith sounds like a hard sell for your casual moviegoer. It may seem even stranger coming from the likes of director Martin Scorsese. This is a deeply personal film and perhaps the greatest movie about the nature of spiritual faith, both good and bad, I’ve seen. Two priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) sail to Japan in 1635 to find their mentor after hearing he has renounced his ties to Christianity and taken up a Japanese wife. Christianity has been outlawed and those caught practicing the religion can be turned in for 100 pieces of silver, and a priest for 300 pieces. The repression forces Christian converts to make difficult choices, especially when their refusal to recant their faith causes suffering for others. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is a fascinating figure who argues that these misplaced missionaries never understood Japanese culture and that this foreign religion simply cannot flourish. The meaning of individual faith is explored beautifully with existential highs and lows. When the priests come across a village of secretly practicing Christians, it’s a powerful example of the goodness of faith, as these people are nourished body and soul, empowered. They can also finally confess their sins and garner a clean slate. However, much of the film is about the internal struggle to retain one’s faith in the seeming absence of confirmation. The priests are eventually caught and ordered to apostate, and their ongoing refusals are met with harder and harder challenges to bear. It’s an ongoing process for many people to square the concepts of a loving God and the horrors and general torment that do not merit said God’s intervention. At one point one of our priests, shaken by his experiences, asks if he is merely praying to silence. In some regard, I think the movie is about coming to terms with the fact that faith is often a relationship with a silent partner. Silence may be the greatest spiritual epic about doubt. It feels like a thriller at times and also the most Christian movie at other times. It puts the simplistic tripe starring the likes of Kirk Cameron to shame. Scorsese’s camera is unmistakably his and the movie is often dazzling to just experience. The pacing is very much a slow burn but the historical context felt increasingly intriguing for my tastes. Ogata is the real star of the movie, embellishing his antagonist with a magnetic power. Every time he was off screen I wished for his return. Silence is not going to be a movie for everyone or for many. It’s too long and airless, but it’s a deeply serious, deeply meditative, and deeply searching film about the power of belief and the price we pay to hold on.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A tense and mature spy thriller that’s as well written as it is acted, The Debt is a thriller that even stops to ponder some serious moral ambiguities along the way. Back in 1965, a group of Israel agents (Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington, Marton Csokas) were sent to Berlin to capture a notorious ex-Nazi doctor (Jasper Christensen) and bring him back for justice. When things don’t go according to plan, the group must decide what is justifiable in the name of moral cost. In 1997, the aged former agents (Helen Mirren, Cirian Hinds, Tom Wilkinson) have to deal with the full consequences of their actions. A far majority of the film takes place in the 60s, and it’s for the best considering that’s where most of the tension and interest reside. As a thriller, drama, and non-linear mystery, there’s always something going on. The film is not without its genre clichés, but the sequences of holding Christensen (Quantum of Solace) hostage rise beyond genre mucking. He is a true monster and his dialogues with the various agents are chilling, reminiscent of Hannibal Lector’s tête-à-têtes. The cast is uniformly good, even Worthington, but the real star is Chastain (The Help, Tree of Life). She is magnetic. It’s a shame that The Debt felt it needed to tie up its loose ends in a conventional ending that discards the film’s more ambitious moral quandary. I suppose the toll of false identities and moral relativism just doesn’t make audiences happy like good old-fashioned vengeance. I guess that’s a debt everyone would rather have paid.
Nate’s Grade: B+