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Red Sparrow

Fox // R // May 22, 2018 // Region 0
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted June 21, 2018 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Almost overnight, Francis Lawrence went from being "the guy responsible for a bland Omega Man remake" to "the director who made a (debatably) better Hunger Games film than the original", taking the helm of the popular young-adult franchise spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence. A significant part of why Catching Fire turned out as well as it did was because director Lawrence engages the psychology of a headstrong yet traumatized woman, someone who's been forced to endure harrowing situations involving violence and death that, in one way or another, were of her doing. The duo aims to hit a similar blend of suspenseful action and mental torment with Red Sparrow, which puts Jennifer Lawrence in the position of a recruited cover agent for the Russian government shortly after her character endures truly disturbing circumstances. While it's exhilarating, bleak, and daring in how it explores sexuality as a weapon, the nature of the story keeps deeper examinations of the main character at arm's length, producing an absorbing reluctant-spy thriller whose expressive layers never completely catch fire.

The sparrow here -- yeah, I know, the bird nicknames are a little much one right after the other -- is Dominika (Lawrence), an ex-dancer who was abruptly knocked out of the Bolshi ballet company. In her period of grief and realization afterwards, and while wrestling with new financial troubles, Dominika gets approached by a relative (a debonair Matthias Schoenaerts) to join Russian Intelligence, effectively making her a spy. After enduring and adapting to certain complications in her first "assignment", she's sent off to train to be one of the "sparrows": spies specifically chosen for their physical or sexual attributes. Her training hones both her powers of seduction and her threshold for indecency and passion, making her the ideal candidate to sniff out the identity of a mole among the Russian government's hierarchy, which starts by her building a relationship with Nash (Joel Edgerton), a rough-around-the-edges and now-identified CIA operative. Motives shift, and allegiances come under question as she works to achieving her mission.

Classic, almost archetypal circumstances bring Dominika into the spy fold, yet whether that's the product of familiar storytelling or the impacts of having an ex-CIA employee -- Jason Matthews, also the source book's author -- as an active creative force behind Red Sparrow can be unclear. Financial troubles, medical bills, and ailing parents provide commonplace motivations for the young woman to essentially be forced into a world of espionage, while the bitterness stemming from her failed career choice has that same kind of quasi true-story mundanity to it. The pathway to Dominika becoming involved with Russian Intelligence may earn degrees of base sympathy, but it's not terribly inventive in how it does so, and perhaps that's a good thing. Instead, the somewhat monotonous real-world texture of her backstory doesn't get in the way of how her desperation and spite evolve alongside the moving parts of her introduction to espionage, providing a foundation for the weapon that she's to become.

Teetering on the line between graphic violence and harrowing themes must've been a lot for the Lawrence-Lawrence duo to take in The Hunger Games, because Red Sparrow gives them the chance to push much further than they've gone before, especially when it comes to the boundaries involving sexuality and violence. The content does become graphic early and throughout, involving instances of rape and humiliation that'll be uncomfortable for some -- most? -- viewers; however, the bleakness of the story's viewpoint on lost innocence and the corruption and weaponization of sexuality becomes a compelling thematic driving force. Under the tutelage of an appropriately stern Charlotte Rampling, training to become a "sparrow" ends up being the crux of Dominika's character development, in which the caliber of her physique becomes what's perceived to be the only tool left at her disposal, keeping her world afloat. Watching how she takes the dynamics of sexual aggression and twists them into true instruments of power can be both mesmerizing and disheartening, where one admires the steeling of her resolve but also laments what she endures and loses along the way.

Thus, Dominika ends up being cold and detached, expressing little of the personality that lies underneath the clinical operative that leaves the sparrow training facility. That becomes a complicated aspect of Red Sparrow, in that this becomes less of an examination of her character and more about observing what said character becomes in the wake of her world being ravaged and broken to a point of no return, providing a unique challenge for Jennifer Lawrence. There are subtleties in her performance as Dominika charges into the gauntlet of her real assignment, in which the character dispatches her new arsenal of psychological tricks without being completely hardened by her experiences, where glances, twitches, and quakes in dialogue offer momentary glimpses at the person she once was. Lawrence displays bravery -- both physical and emotional -- in the chain reaction of sequences that get her into the field as a "sparrow", and through an on-and-off tolerable Russian accent portrays a woman who both channels and restrains ferocity while gathering intel, getting close to Joel Edgerton's stock CIA-operative, and doing a little sleight of hand.

Much like the circumstances leading into Dominika's acceptance into the Russian spy program, the hunt for a mole and the manipulations between competing spies come together into mundane plotting for Red Sparrow, though that's somewhat par for the course with "everyday" bouts of espionage. While the script fabricates tension through unnecessary physical obstacles and bad decisions made by those outside the world of espionage -- Mary-Louise Parker turns in a peculiar cameo as an informant drunk out of her mind -- the bravado involved with how director Lawrence executes torture sequences and connects the dots of several underlying mysteries offset those shortcomings in credibility. Again, Red Sparrow isn't intriguing because of what's happening, but in how Dominika manipulates the events with the tools now at her disposal, as her motivations and allegiances appear to remain fluid all the way until its cunningly arranged finale. It's gripping to watch her decide that she's going to be the sparrow, yet that transformation lacks dramatic poignancy without a clear perspective on an earlier version of herself.

The 4K Blu-ray:

Red Sparrow swoops onto the 4K scene in a fairly standard two-disc package, with Disc Two being a standard, blue-topped Blu-ray disc. The artwork, featuring a bright-red visage framing Lawrence's face drawn in black, has been duplicated on the front and back of the semi-glossy slipcase. A Digital Copy slip has also been included.

Video and Audio:

Red Sparrow operates in the gloomy, desaturated corners of the world of espionage, and the film's marketing emphasizes the fact that the most significant color to emerge from the photography will be red … and that's true. Regardless of architecture, that coldness often makes the film visually drab, but the severity of fine details, the plays on contrast with rich shadows, and the flesh tones' struggle to penetrate through the austerity yields a distinctive viewing experience, framed at 2.35:1 by Francis Lawrence's Hunger Games cinematographer, Jo Willems, and presented in a 2160p, HDR-enhanced transfer. Scenes have their desired palette effect -- soft aqua shades near a pool, heavy golden radiance in wood-trim surroundings, slate grays during exterior shots -- and the underlying colors emerge with appropriate saturation through their intentions, marked by pale but compelling skin tones and mild vibrancy in clothing. Engaging textures aren't in abundance, but strands of hair, garments, and the appearance of both normal and damaged skin surfaces are reputable. The UltraHD aspects don't have many opportunities to shine and the general contrast leans fairly murky and dark, but brighter-lit scenes exhibit radiant brightness levels that enhance the image's depth. Red Sparrow ain't a demo disc, but it gets down and dirty in the ways it needs to.

Going in with the expectation that Red Sparrow will deliver a Bourne-caliber spy thriller's sonic presentation wouldn't be wise, but there are indeed certain assertive moments across the film that test the threshold of the sound design, captured eloquently through Fox's Dolby Atmos object-based sound. Higher-pitched atmosphere and sound effects are perhaps the most engaging aspects here, from the snapping of the limbs in a bone and the whirr of a handheld torture device to the crash of water on a body and the pop of a firearm, which engage the front channels with adept, sharp clarity. A few lower-end elements tackle the bass response, telegraphing moments of fine but ultimately forgettable bodily impact here and there. Dialogue tends to be consistently adaptive to the sound design, whether it's whisper soft or at a mild yell in a semi-echoic space, and the track allows the almost universal English language delivery to pour through without a hitch. The rear channels aren't terribly important in the mostly drama-driven track, but the flow of effects does transition nicely to the back here and there. Don't go in expecting Atomic Blonde, and you'll discover a nuanced HD track with vigor where needed.

Special Features:

The bulk of the extras appear on the included standard Blu-ray presentation for Red Sparrow, but the UltraHD disc does come equipped with an Audio Commentary with Director Francis Lawrence, and once again he proves to be an attentive, informative conversationalist during the show. Like his prior commentaries -- though sans Nina Jacobsen this time around -- Lawrence hits a steady, low-key rhythm that gracefully addresses points of interest throughout the film, beginning with a discussion about progressing Jennifer Lawrence into "new territory" and how development for the film started to generate during Mockingjay Part 2. He chats about the difficulties of shooting ballet and meshing together intercut sequences that employ screen direction, about finding Moscow-ish stark scenery in Budapest, about Charlotte Rampling's concerns about her character seeming one-dimensional -- hint: she is -- and how director Lawrence flew out to France to chat with her about that, and about how they retooled the tone and intentions of the ending. And, of course, Lawrence candidly discusses the physicality of two of scenes in the film that ask Jennifer Lawrence to expose herself both in body and in performance. Casual, talky insights are interjected throughout, resulting in one of those tracks that offers nice background noise without being a consistently involving commentary.

A series of featurettes chart many aspects of the film's conception, starting off with A New Cold War (12:42, 16x9 HD), which examines the process of bringing the book to the screen. A minute of behind-the-scenes glimpses lead into interview material with Francis Lawrence, who has always fared better in interview format than in commentaries, as well as with novelist Jason Matthews and screenwriter Justin Haythe. They lay out the basics of the adaptation at first, from tone to character threads, then Jennifer Lawrence gets in the mix to chat a bit about the character herself. Basic, plot-overviewing discussions feed into the "exploitative" nature of the film and steering away from being an erotic thriller. Agents Provocateurs: An Ensemble Cast (15:21, 16x9 HD) explores the breadth of the cast, paying extra attention to Jennifer Lawrence's temperament and then moves to the rest for the "ensemble" aspect of the piece, while Tradecraft: Visual Authenticity (13:28, 16x9 HD) addresses the pragmatic world-building involved with creating the film's realistic tempo, bringing Jo Willems and his "shorthand" with the director into the conversation.

Heart of the Tempest (10:56, 16x9 HD) more directly explores how the different locations were employed in creation of said world in Red Sparrow, discussing the cobbling-together of locations from Moscow and Budapest to Vienna and London, and how it brought together modern and classic visual components. Over ten minutes gets dedicated to the ballet and stunts in Welcome to Sparrow School (12:12, 16x9 HD), where choreographer Kurt Froman discusses alongside Francis Lawrence the rendition that appears onscreen and "selling" Lawrence's capabilities, then somewhat clumsily moves into discussion about the few truly aggressive moments in what's ultimately more of a psychological espionage thriller. A Puzzle of Need (14:08, 16x9 HD) shifts gears into shaping the content into a hard-R toned production through the editing and scoring, touching on avoiding sensuality with aesthetics and focusing on lots of footage of the orchestra doing their thing. Altogether, it's over an hour's worth of solid, well-edited content.

Rounding things out is a series of Deleted Scenes (12:12, 16x9 HD), available with optional commentary with Francis Lawrence.

Final Thoughts:

I enjoyed Red Sparrow, but not because it was anything like what was expected, as it's neither a Bourne-type of spy thriller nor an Atomic Blonde-like action extravaganza. Instead, Francis Lawrence's adaptation of a novel written by an ex-CIA operative explores how a young Russian dancer transforms not only into a spy, but one who specifically builds tolerance levels to the force of sexuality, impacted by her harrowing experiences along the way. There are graphic scenes here, but they fit together with the gritty psychological mosaic that the two Lawrences hoped to create, depicting how she uses her trauma and training as a springboard for empowerment and discovery of her own motives. As a spy thriller itself, Red Sparrow remains fairly mundane in its plotting around discovering a mole and working around a daring CIA agent, but the realism and gravity of Dominika's experiences and how she weaponizes them in a manner of her choosing takes it up a few notches, even if the chilliness of her character undercuts it as a dramatic endeavor. Fox's UltraHD looks and sounds quite robust considering the desired visual tone, and comes with a commentary and over an hour of interview-studded featurettes. Strongly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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