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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Red Sparrow movie review: undercovers agent

Red Sparrow red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Ballerina turned whore-spy? This is like a cheap porn scenario, and the Hollywood gloss makes it worse. Risible yet tedious, yet another movie by men that thinks it’s critiquing misogyny yet is indistinguishable from it.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women; love Jennifer Lawrence
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Yes, I vuz ballerina now I am sexy whore-spy. You vant to make fuck in exchange for military secrets?”

Is Red Sparrow kidding with this crap? This is like a cheap porn scenario, and not even the Hollywood gloss with which it is presented can elevate it above that. No, scratch that: the Hollywood gloss makes it worse. All the big-name Western actors playing Russians, speaking English with terrible Russian accents… and looking bored yet also self-conscious at the same time. What a recipe for that most contradictory of combinations: Red Sparrow is risible yet also tedious. Laughing at it doesn’t offer any enjoyment, though. It just makes you sad for the waste of talent involved, and the waste of your time and attention when you could have been doing something productive like finally busting through that really tough level in Candy Crush.

Jennifer Lawrence may get beat up, tortured, almost raped (twice), and actually raped, but she sure shows men, don’t she?

This is, Lord help us, yet another example of Hollywood men believing they are woke and feminist because while they have given us a story reeking of salacious misogyny and abuse, that’s totally okay and we should be cool with it because their female protagonist gets to wale on and even kill dudes. Jennifer Lawrence’s (mother!, Passengers) Dominika Egorova may get beat up, tortured, almost raped (twice), and actually raped, but she sure shows men, don’t she? Please enjoy some titillating J-Law nudity and sashaying in lingerie while she embraces being a Strong Woman in a way that does not actually threaten the status quo. (I mean, a woman gathering her strength in the face of a man who wants to take advantage of her would definitely imagine how her ass looks in black lace from the perspective of a third person who is not actually in the room behind her, but which just so happens to replicate the perspective of the audience, right? That’s normal. All women think like this.) She may get perved on by much older men, including a male blood relative, but it’s absolutely fine because they are bad guys and you, gentleman adjusting your balls in the multiplex, are off the hook because of course you are a good guy.

“Not Black Swan, no! Shhh! Red. Sparrow.”

“Not Black Swan, no! Shhh! Red. Sparrow.”

(I swear to god, I think the guy down the row from me in my afternoon multiplex screening was touching himself — there was a very distinctive rubbing noise. I’m not kidding or exaggerating. It was all I could do to stop myself from yelling at him to get the fuck out of the theater.)

I have said this many times before, and it looks like I have to say it again because no one is listening: If your movie that you think is critiquing misogyny is indistinguishable from misogyny, you are doing it wrong.

Red Sparrow is basically the Black Widow movie we’ve been waiting for SINCE FOREVER and will now not get because when this one flops and is trashed by so many of my fellow critics, Hollywood will say that nobody wants to see movies about lady spies. We do! Just not like this. There is more life and female power and clobbering of sexist expectations of women in our brief introduction to Natasha Romanoff’s Black Widow in 2012’s The Avengers — in which she completely owns a bad guy who thinks she is his prisoner — than in the entire overlong (two hours plus) of Red Sparrow. There is no humor, no self-awareness of its own absurdity — there is just turgid solemnity and sadism.

There is no humor, no self-awareness of Red Sparrow’s own absurdity — there is just turgid solemnity and sadism.

After a career-ending injury, Bolshoi ballerina Egorova is given little choice but to accept the invitation of her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts: The Danish Girl, Far from the Madding Crowd), a honcho at the SVR, the Russian equivalent of the CIA, to become a sexy whore-spy who will use her wiles and her body to get whatever information the Kremlin needs from whomever it needs it from. (There are boy sparrows. But we don’t get to see them subjected to repeated mental, emotional, and physical humiliation just so they can prove that they don’t deserve such abuse. It’s almost as if the self-worth of men is inherent, and isn’t something that needs to be defended.) Her first target after sparrow school is CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton: Bright, It Comes at Night), who is so one-dimensionally noble and upstanding that I am 110-percent convinced that he is a Marty Stu stand-in for author Jason Matthews — who is, what’s this, a former CIA agent! — upon whose novel this is based. Something about a mole at SVR who is working with Nash and the CIA, and Uncle needs the mole’s name, blah blah blah. There’s never any suspense in anything that happens here, partly because the narrow path of the script doesn’t leave a lot of room for leeway, but mostly because America Good, Russia Bad. Even Russians can see this!

“Remember, sexy whore-spy, I’m the good American nice guy who fucks you out of decency, not a creepy older man perving on you.”

“Remember, sexy whore-spy, I’m the good American nice guy who fucks you out of decency, not a creepy older man perving on you.”

There is no good reason for this movie to exist. Screenwriter Justin Haythe? His last two scripts were A Cure for Wellness (flop) and The Lone Ranger (huge stinkin’ colossal flop) — how does he get more work? Director Francis Lawrence directed three of the four Hunger Games movies, but now it’s clear that the power of those movies — and the power of Jennifer Lawrence in them — springs from novelist Suzanne Collins’s potent storytelling. (Maybe we could just stop men from making movies for a while? Let them cool off a little, reflect on their mistakes?) How did anyone convince the likes of Charlotte Rampling (45 Years, The Sea), Ciarán Hinds (Justice League, Silence), Joely Richardson (Snowden, The Messenger), and Jeremy Irons (Their Finest, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) to deign to appear here? I get why Mary-Louise Parker (Red 2, Howl) agreed: hers is the only astereotypical character… and she’s the only one among the cast who escapes with her dignity intact.

And yet: “There are no accidents,” Egorova’s uncle says, reflecting on how her accidental (or was it? dum dum DUM) injury put her in the path of whore-spy-dom. And that is true of movies as well, and of Red Sparrow. Many many people thought it was Good, and signed off on, the notion that an appropriate way to exalt and honor the humanity of an oppressed woman was to diminish and dehumanize her for your entertainment. This wasn’t an accident. This is the entertainment sea we swim in.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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Red Sparrow (2018) | directed by Francis Lawrence
US/Can release: Mar 02 2018
UK/Ire release: Mar 01 2018

MPAA: rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
BBFC: rated 15 (strong bloody violence, gore, sexual violence, sex, very strong language)

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card (now updated for 2017’s trolls!) you might want to reconsider.

  • Josh Board

    As a movie critic in San Diego — I’m sad to say — I wish I would’ve written my review as well as this. It’s exactly how I feel about this crappy movie.

  • Bluejay

    Red Sparrow is basically the Black Widow movie we’ve been waiting for SINCE FOREVER and will now not get because when this one flops and is trashed by so many of my fellow critics, Hollywood will say that nobody wants to see movies about lady spies.

    Hope this isn’t the case. According to several accounts, Marvel IS belatedly taking the first steps toward a Black Widow movie. Presumably the existence of Red Sparrow isn’t deterring them — there are lots of Widow stories to be told beyond the ballerina-turned-spy origin.

    This probably won’t be the last time I’ll point it out, but Marvel lately has been showing just how to show women as powerful and gorgeous *without* doing all the leering male-gazey misogynist crap. Hope that sets an example to inspire other filmmakers as well.

  • Leslie Mason


    1.) Why is this rated below Fifty Shades Freed?
    2.) How did this TOXIC, woman hating crap not get a ZERO? Based on your review, this seems like the kind of film that was made for nothing but masturbatory purposes (sorry you had to share a theater with the, ehem, intended target audience)
    3.) Is your opening sentence actual dialogue from the movie? WTF how was this allowed!?

  • Aww, thanks!

  • I hope it isn’t the case as well. But we know how these things go…

  • This is worse than *Fifty Shades Freed* because it takes itself much more seriously than that other film. FSF makes no pretense to being anything other than a wish-fulfillment fantasy romance. But *Sparrow* thinks it’s an intricate, sophisticated thriller. Another critic called it *Tinker Tailor Soldier Sexpot* — I wish I’d thought of that.

    The half star is for Mary-Louise Parker. I want to see the movie she thinks she’s in.

    And no, my opening sentence is not actual dialogue from the film. It’s just representative. :-)

  • Michiel Deinema

    The trailer looks and sounds like torture porn. I’m a fan of Jennifer Lawrence, but between this and mother! not exactly a fan of her latest work. Big fan of Matthias Schoenaerts so against better judgment I’m seeing it on sunday.

  • Michiel Deinema

    “But while her latest canvas has the contours of an airport novel, it has the soul of a washing machine instruction manual.”

    From that same review, quite quotable :)

  • RogerBW

    As far as one can tell from material that’s become public, this sort of thing doesn’t actually happen: it was tried for a while, but pillow talk works both ways, and spies who sleep with their targets have an embarrassing habit of giving away more than they get.

    Setting up people (usually men, usually married) for illicit sex and then blackmailing them, sure, but you don’t need a spy for that.

  • bronxbee

    i am disappointed. i *love* spy stuff, and was so hoping that Jennifer Lawrence, who i love, would make it a fun, sexy (not exploitive) romp through russia and a sort of travel porn spy thing. *sigh* i keep hoping Alias and Covert Affairs will influence movie makers and writers and directors to do something fun and light and feminist. oh, well, may as well start dreaming of next year…

  • ketac6

    I think I might just watch Nikita (the film) again instead. Or even The Assassin. It sounds as if this is basically the same story but with less questioning of power relationships and ethics.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Less questioning of power relationships and ethics in La Femme Nikita? Mate, I think it’s been a while since you’ve seen it.

  • Looks like this movie isn’t making good money at the box office. Good. I’m annoyed that I even had to sit through the trailer.

  • ketac6

    It is a while but I still can’t tell if you’ve said the exact opposite of my comment!

  • rick

    Some observations:
    1. This is a long, long, long, long movie. And that wouldn’t be so bad if it were an “epic” – the problem is that this movie has only about 45 minutes of plot in it.
    2. The Russian accents are REALLY bad. You’ll find better Russian accents in an old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.
    3. Watching the movie at the multiplex, it was unintentionally funny to see the number of guys in the audience who were trying to record the “naughty” JLaw scenes on their phones from the big screen.
    4. Instead of being a movie, this film instead looks like an expensive pilot for a “Netflix Original Series”.
    5. I would love to say that most of the characters in this film are one-dimensional, but that would be an insult to dimensions.
    6. The Mary-Louise Parker character doesn’t seem to be as much from another world as from another universe.
    7. People in the spy world sure wear some stylish clothes and have some wonderful hairstyles.
    8. A variation of your “Bingo” comment – “Here’s a rape scene to show us all that rape is bad”.
    9. People still use computer disks?
    10. Did I mention that this movie is long?

  • The stuff with the disks was weird. Weird still was the modern laptop that apparently has an internal 3.5″ drive.

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