Ever since the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the public perception of life behind the Iron Curtain has been a source of mystery, intrigue, and fear. Fanned to a fevered pitch by the McCarthy Senate Hearings investigating suspected communist infiltration into the very fabric of our nation, the American public has been fascinated with the totalitarian ‘Evil Empire.’ Pervasive dark fascination gripped the public creating a fertile ground for one of the most popular genres pervading all forms of entertainment, the espionage thriller. Characters like Janes Bond, Derek Flint, and Napoleon Solo were household names more recognizable than the President. A popular belief about the ‘Godless Commies’, was that the Soviet government maintained elaborate training camps purposed with the covert production infiltrators able to mimic a typical American with undetectable accuracy. The fear that Red agents were living undetected among us. A communist agent could be standing next to on the train to work, online behind you at the coffee truck or, living next door. These were the sleeper agents, hiding in plain sight until activated by a prearranged order. The other popular variation of this nightmarish scenario is the secret training of deadly assassins, typically beautiful, seductive young women. Films and television series such as ‘La Femme Nikita’ or its television counterpart, ‘Nikita’ explored the draconian, overtly sadistic training program that transformed young girls into a well-honed killing machine proficient in all forms of murder and mayhem from knives, firearms, martial arts and sex. This plot point incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as part of the backstory for ‘The Black Widow,’ trained in the highly secretive ‘Red Room Facility,’ she became a very sexualized and deadly weapon. A variation of this methodology is the foundation for the cinematic thriller, ‘Red Sparrow.’
The popularity of the television series, ‘The Americans’, the film studios had bankable proof that these holdovers from the Cold War’ holdover of sexy spy training facilities are still viable. With a beautiful Academy Award winner like Jennifer Lawrence, as the seductive agent, nothing could go wrong. Unfortunately, considering the lackluster response from both critics and the audience, something most certainly did. The movie fell short of expectations that not even the appealing star power generated by Ms. Lawrence nor the fact that fans are treated to a mostly derive scene of the beautiful young woman sans most costuming, was insufficient to overcome the numerous obstacles entwined in the core of the story. Despite the numerous missed opportunities plaguing the production, there is an iota of entertainment able to resist the overwhelming factors conspiring against its success, at the core of missed chances of an interesting movie is the script provided by Justin Haythe. His previous movie, ‘The Lone Ranger,’ also had the talents of proven Box Office draws, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. That movie attempted to leverage the childhood memories of the same Baby Boomers that lived through the Cold War but with less successful results. It is like building a wall. Even if the bricks are solid, the lines true and foundation slid, if the mortar is watery, the structure is doomed to collapse.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), is one of the most renown and talented ballerinas in Russia. She had been able to support her ill mother, Nina Egorova Joely Richardson (Joely Richardson) until an accident suddenly ended her stellar career. Broken and despondent Dominika had nowhere to turn to make her ripe for a well-timed offer from her uncle Ivan Vladimirovich Egorov, (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of the covert Russian Intelligence organization. He proposes his nice an offer. In return for seducing a powerful Russian gangster, Dimitry Ustinov (Kristof Konrad), her mother will be cared for properly. This is a typical plot contrivance traditionally imposed by the mainstream studios. A talented young woman with a promising career and legitimate life must be shown to be desperate to choose a pathway including actions tantamount to murder and prostitution. To placate the moral sensibilities of providing the audience with a reasonably valid excuse. If Dominika freely chose to seduce a stranger, and, no spoiler, escalating too far more serious acts of espionage and violence. Compounding this stigma is the fact that despite taking place in contemporary Russia, many people still remember the dark days of the Red Scare, Commie secret agents train to perfectly infiltrate our society and strike from within.
Ivan’s proposal was a test of Dominika, to ascertain whether she was willing and able, to compromise her moral compass. The possibility of choice quickly evaporates when Dominika’s mission goes awry. Ustinov rapes her, resulting in him being killed by Sergei Matorin, a Russian operative, and expert in extremely painful methods of interrogation, drawing her deeper into the darkness and further negating any potential options. Offers of assistance quickly spiral into blackmail as Dominika bluntly informed that unless she enters a high-stress training program, she will be summarily executed to remove any witnesses to the ‘cleaning’ of her rapists. Once again, a moral decision is swept aside leaving her to a fate she had no part in its unfolding. The themes explored in this movie will be experienced differently along generational lines. Younger members of the audience will inevitably view this story as a political/spy thriller with erotic overtones. In contrast, my fellow Baby Boomers have experienced firsthand the abject fear that permeated the entire nation. For us, this was a time of ducking under school desks and bomb shelter drills. Other might feel that the main theme might revolve around the corruption of an innocent woman into the depravity of a Russian operative. Personal experience skews our vantage point of the primary narrative to a depth of heinous depravity the Russian are willing to descend to subvert the American way of life. Nothing had changed since the Fifties when they were known as the Soviet Union. This substantially alters the perceived tone and underlying message contained in the story.
Ms. Lawrence is, of course, an exceptionally talented and versatile actress. At only 28 she already has topped a myriad of lists including such achievements and accolades as ‘Most Beautiful,’ ‘Most Desirable,’ ‘Highest Paid ‘and ‘Most Talkative,’ traits that encompass not only her striking physical attractiveness but her unique personality and still growing natural abilities as an eclectic performer. She fully commits to every character she undertakes with professionalism, dedication, and panache. Some derided her choice to appear completely naked as part of her role. A short time ago her Cloud storage was hacked, with several photos of her sans attire. Called a hypocritic for objecting to those images while displaying more skin in the film, Ms. Lawrence demonstrated a strength of character clearly stating the difference between theft with the crass invasion of privacy and a professional choice made for artistic reasons. Understanding this background adds to the depth and integrity of her performance. Unlike her character, Ms. Lawrence had options in her life, even in the aftermath of a preemptive negation of her privacy. The script by Justin Haythe lacked the necessary internal consistency and proper gravitas to do justice to the source material, a novel by Jason Matthews. The presentation of the draconian training program to transform a ballerina into a ‘Sparrow,’ a highly trained and motivated weapon of the State, come across as expletive notwithstanding the interesting visual styling crafted by the director Francis Lawrence. A majority of his oeuvre is a music video for A-List singers as Pink, Britany Spears, Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez. Cinematically Mr. Lawrence helmed the last three installments of Ms. Lawrence’s iconic ‘Hunger Games’ Franchise as well as ‘Constantine’ and ‘I Am Legend.’ As a filmmaker, Mr. Lawrence is extremely well-versed in films that wrap the narrative around with intriguing visuals. Unfortunately, the film is an example of anti-synergy’, the whole as less than the sum of its parts. The potential for a far more entertaining movie eluded the cast, crew and ultimately the audience.