Blu-ray Review: Red Sparrow

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Red Sparrow is a spy thriller that takes place in present-day Russia, chronicling the fictitious, espionage-based, double-agent exploits occurring in what the film calls a resurgence of the Cold War. Despite the star power of female lead Jennifer Lawrence, Red Sparrow struggled to find an audience, turning in somewhat middling numbers during its spring box office run. Fox Home Entertainment has fast-tracked the film to Blu-ray (also 4K UltraHD, standard DVD, and Digital HD) in order to find a home-based audience.

Is it worth your time? Let's be frank about one glaring problem with Red Sparrow: not only does it run an indulgent 140 minutes, director Francis Lawrence (no relation, but director of three of the four Hunger Games movies) simply doesn't do enough to make the story move. So the short answer is: if you're a die-hard, must-see-everything-she's-in fan of Jennifer Lawrence, by all means don't miss Sparrow. I don't know what's up with her choices lately, but she seems to have bent over backwards trying to distance herself from more crowd-pleasing fare like her four star-turns as Katniss Everdeen and three as X-Men's Mystique (with another on the way in early 2019). Between Darren Aronofsky's Mother! (2017) and now Red Sparrow, JLaw seems intent on displaying a much more unhinged side, to say the least. 
Red Sparrow Jlaw blonde.jpg And like Mother! (thought not nearly as much so), Sparrow is often supremely unpleasant. Also starring Joel Edgerton as an American spy in Russia, this is a film steeped in graphic depiction of torture and sexual degradation. Want to see a startlingly realistic depiction of murder via a wire slicing a man's throat (all while he's in the midst of raping a woman)? Sparrow is your ticket. Just trying to be up front about it. If that sounds stomach churning (and, along with numerous other moments, it is), then the answer to my first question would a resounding "no."

Ballerina Dominika (Lawrence) experiences a soul-and-bone-crushing injury, in front of a live audience, when her partner accidentally lands a jump directly on her leg. Though surgery and rehab heals it enough for her to walk (and even run) on, her dancing days are over. Her number one concern is keeping her ailing mother out of a state-run care facility, so she accepts her uncle Ivan's (Matthias Schoenaerts) offer to attend "Red Sparrow" school. Or, as Dominika comes to call it, "whore school." Among other young women and men, chosen for their beauty primarily as explained by Headmistress Matron (a scarily severe Charlotte Rampling, decades-removed but thematically-close to The Night Porter), Dominika is trained to use her sexuality to extract valuable information from government targets.

Nate Nash (Edgerton) is working with a Russian mole code-named "Marble," and eventually he and Dominika's paths cross while each is on assignment in Budapest. Though there's not much tension (or action, if that's what you're seeking), the plot gets stickier and stickier. You've probably seen this type of film before: who's undercover, who's a double-agent, who's tricking whom? That's all well and good, but we need some sympathetic characters to root for (at least one, maybe?). Director Lawrence, working from a screenplay based on Jason Matthews' novel of the same name, fails to provide us with anything to truly care about. Jennifer Lawrence throws herself into the role with gusto, but it all starts to feel more like a big favor she's doing her former Hunger Games director, and less like a smart career move. 

Red Sparrow group.jpg Fox Home Entertainment, however, offers a superb Blu-ray edition with a DTS-HD MA 7.1 surround mix that highlights James Newton Howard's evocative, icy score (one of the film's best pleasures). Director Francis Lawrence provides audio commentary, not only for the feature film but for 12 minutes of deleted scenes. Split into six separate featurettes, there's a total about about 77 minutes of behind-the-scenes, making-of material. Again, your mileage is bound to vary based on how much value you find in the film itself, but skimming over this generous selection of material, it's clear the Blu-ray's production team really succeeded in providing worthwhile extras.

I'll take last year's Atomic Blonde if I want to an ass-kicking female lead in a spy thriller taking place in a Cold War (or in Sparrow's case, quasi-Cold War) setting. That film crackled with dark humor and kinetic energy simply not found in Red Sparrow But again, Jennifer Lawrence fans should queue up immediately because there's a lot to like about her finely-tuned performance here.

Red Sparrow BD.jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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