RED SPARROW and DEATH WISH
If you're one of those people who, for personal or professional reasons, simply has to catch a new movie every weekend, your wide-release choices this time around were director Francis Lawrence's spy thriller Red Sparrow and director Eli Roth's remake of Death Wish. In other words, you could either see the one in which Jennifer Lawrence is routinely beaten, tortured, and raped, or the one in which Bruce Willis drops an elevated car directly onto a bad guy's head. Apples and apples, really. And both experiences were kind of rotten to the core.
Jennifer Lawrence's public persona makes her seem like the most American of millennial movie stars – blunt, unabashed, charmingly klutzy, and totally unconcerned if you have a problem with her being loud and drunk and funny in televised interviews and at movie premieres. So at first, it almost feels like a joke that the star's latest finds her portraying a fiercely disciplined Russian dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet … until you realize just how little interest Red Sparrow has in jokes.
When a horrific stage calamity abruptly ends her performing career, Lawrence's Dominika Egorova – fearing the loss of her apartment and health coverage for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) – is coerced by her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) into serving with an elite team of intelligence operatives known as “sparrows.” Before becoming an official Russian agent, however, Dominika must endure weeks of emotional and physical abuse at a secret academy where young spies-in-training are taught to procure information through the art of seduction – a training facility Dominika aptly describes as “whore school.” It's a grim place, to be sure. But in retrospect, I wish we'd spent more time at the academy, because Red Sparrow just gets grimmer, yet somehow also blander, from there.
As with Charlize Theron in last summer's Atomic Blonde, the casting of Lawrence here is incredibly shrewd, given that all those Hunger Games – three of which were similarly directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation to his star) – established her as a major ass-kicker who could handily take care of herself. That being said, I still didn't get any enjoyment from watching Dominika endure such frequent beatings and sexual assaults, to say nothing of the blithe disregard her handlers display toward the woman's suffering. (Having just executed one of Dominika's assailants mid-attack, Schoenaerts – whose character, honest to Chekhov, is named Uncle Vanya – tells his niece, “I would never have let him hurt you.” The sentiment might have carried more weight had Dominika's attacker not already raped her.) This being a Hollywood entertainment – one adapted from the first in a series of spy novels by Jason Matthews – Dominika, and Lawrence, naturally come out on top. But 10 minutes of personal victory are hard to weigh against so many stabbings, flayings, and violent punches to the face (plus one nightmarishly broken leg), and the effect of all this brutality is both upsetting and, eventually, wearying. I didn't care if Dominika wound up victorious. I just wanted her to stop fighting and find her way to a nice romantic comedy – preferably one with Bradley Cooper and an awkward dance contest.
Granted, there's a romance, or at least an attempt at one, in Red Sparrow, too, with Dominika recruited to tail and seduce an American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton's Nate Nash) desperate to protect the identity of his Russian mole. Yet as much as the movie's plot needs them to, sparks don't exactly fly between Lawrence and Edgerton, whose visible lack of rapport would earn them failing grades in high-school chemistry. Despite her mostly sturdy performance, Lawrence seems uncomfortable navigating her Russian accent. (To be fair, though, so do co-stars Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, and Ciarán Hinds, none of whom has Lawrence's excuses of youth and deep-seated American-ness.) She seems even less comfortable partnering Edgerton, who, for his part, appears happier trading confounding exposition with fellow CIA agents (the terrific Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey) than sharing moist-eyed glances with Lawrence. Screenwriter Justin Haythe's script is typically inscrutable for its globe-trotting genre. A spy thriller has big problems, though, when your most distracting question isn't “What's going on?!” so much as “Who cast this thing?!” (I kept wondering why Schoenaerts wasn't given a crack at the Nash role instead, considering the heat he generated with Tilda Swinton in A Bigger Splash and Carey Mulligan in Far from the Madding Crowd.)
Although the film runs nearly 140 minutes, it doesn't take half that length for director Lawrence's Cold War reprise to start feeling endless, and while the movie is beautifully shot by cinematographer Jo Willems, the listless pacing and narrative repetition make this a chore to sit through. Yet it would be dishonest to imply that I didn't have any fun. Because just past the mid-point, Mary-Louise Parker shows up, and for just under 10 minutes, Red Sparrow becomes utterly fantastic. I won't pretend that I wholly understood the significance of her role as a shady senator's chief of staff, nor why Parker's big – really, her only – scene found her selling state secrets that she has stored on floppy disks. (I expect war games in a 2018 thriller set in Russia, but not WarGames.) Yet playing a neurotic, out-of-her-league informant who's clearly four or five sheets to the wind, Parker is both divinely funny and startlingly present, not to mention the only character I remotely felt for. How ironic that Mary-Louise Parker winds up the one actor here who's not in the weeds.
As for Death Wish, a horribly timed remake of the Charles Bronson revenge “classic,” I didn't hate the film for what it was so much as what it wanted – namely, whoops and cheers whenever Bruce Willis' anguished family man shot, stabbed, crushed, or in any way mutilated some thuggish youth while attempting to avenge his wife's murder and rid the Chicago streets of crime. It's my duty to report that the largely senior crowd at my Friday screening appeared to have a blast at this thing. (One patron laughed so hard at a crook's death-by-bowling-ball that her Margaret Hamilton cackle made me instinctively look heavenward in fear of flying monkeys.) But in all honesty, the audience's vocal merriment chilled me to the bone, given that my fellow movie-goers were clearly endorsing the same attitudes that made hits out of Bronson's Death Wish and Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry series back in the day: Who needs due process when you've got a thick-necked bruiser with a gun and an attitude?
In fairness, there are decent supporting turns by Vincent D'Onofrio, Dean Norris, Kimberly Elise, Camila Morrone, and the too-briefly-seen Elisabeth Shue. And considering his torture-porn leanings (and despite the gruesome splattered brains), Roth's work here is uncharacteristically restrained; coming from the director of Hostel and the cannibal gore-fest The Green Inferno, this is practically Roth's My Dinner with Andre. Yet Joe Carnahan's script is hopelessly confused about what messages it's trying to convey – the film pays “O the humanity” lip service to Chicago-homicide stats while revving patrons' desire for even more dead bodies – and the movie's contrivances and abject silliness (did I mention the bowling ball?) doesn't jibe with its mood-killing solemnity or Willis' agonized “Gimme my Oscar!” outbursts. Thankfully, the actor is allowed a few moments of inoffensive levity, as when Willis chuckles upon hearing a news report refer to his mysterious vigilante killer as “a man in his mid-to-late 30s.” But even at Death Wish's most bearable, this ludicrous “good guy with a gun” morality play keeps shooting itself in the foot.