It’s time to give credit where credit is due and rank Francis Lawrence amongst the worst filmmakers currently working in Hollywood. After all, the guy somehow managed to ruin Alan Moore’s brilliant British supernatural sleuth in Constantine, completely missed the point of Richard Matheson’s masterpiece I Am Legend, and made three Hunger Games sequels so dry and dull that they brought down the entire YA dystopia subgenre with them. That’s a horrendous track record without even mentioning what was before this week his worst movie (Water For Elephants…*shudder*). Yet somehow we don’t tend to rank Francis Lawrence at the very bottom of the rancid well of horrible contemporary directors like we should. It’s likely because his work is so indistinguishably dull that he doesn’t normally stand out as particularly dire or inept. Well, that changes today. Francis Lawrence has delivered what just might be the worst movie of 2018. I know there are still many months’ worth of disappointing movies to come, but there is something so off-putting and boring about Red Sparrow that’ll it’ll be tough to top.
So, the trailers have likely lead you down a false path to thinking that Red Sparrow is some sort of bootleg version of Black Widow starring Jennifer Lawrence instead of Scarlett Johansson. The marketing team has been careful to ensure that’s the case. This ain’t that movie though. Not even close. Jennifer Lawrence stars as a Russian ballerina who has her leg broken mid-performance at the peak of her career, leaving her destitute. Her creepy spy uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) then shows up to send her on a mission to seduce a powerful figure so that he can be assassinated mid rumpy-pumpy. She does. It goes well. Then she’s sent to spy school. Not normal spy school though. Sexy spy school. Apparently, it’s based on an actual stream of Russian spies who were young n’ pretty folks trained to seduce and screw for their country.
Yep, that’s the setup and for a gruelling 45-minutes or so, Francis Lawrence forces audiences to leer at the nasty creepy sexual training program. Young cadets are forced to watch hours of porn and screw sex criminals or soldiers on demand (only to have their hanky-panky sessions filmed by the teachers and analyzed by the class). Once again, this is an actual prominent sequence in a Hollywood movie released in 2017. Quite apart from the gross cliché of providing female heroes with motivation through sexual assault, the movie lingers on all the gross displays of forced sexuality in ways that are clearly supposed to be titillating. Jennifer Lawrence bares all for the cause and when it happens you wish that you could cover her with a blanket and tell her that she doesn’t have to do this. There are filmmakers who could have made a prolonged sex school sequence like this disturbingly satirical or horrifically real. Francis Lawrence lacks the brains or skill for either. He just shoots it flat like a basic cable erotic thriller. It all feels wrong and exploitative in ways that always would have garnered controversy, but in the middle of the #METOO movement, it comes off as insanely tone deaf. How this movie made it into theatres at all is a mystery. I guess Fox really didn’t want to lose that investment.
After the prolonged rape factory sequence in a movie that is supposed to sell popcorn in the suburbs, Red Sparrow finally settles into a more conventional twisty-turny suspense thriller with a forbidden romance between Lawrence and an American spy played by Joel Edgerton. This material remains as blandly dispassionate and overlong as everything else. All of the attempts to ring tension from silence and expectation plays more like tedious time marking. All of the attempts at romance feel more like two mannequins shoved into a closet than anything resembling human emotion. All of the action scenes are rushed and uninspired. All of the violence is gratuitous, yet unmoving. This feels like a movie made by robots covered in human suits. No one is invested. Every performance is whispered in faux gravitas. It’s all phoney and forced. None of it registers. All of it is boring. This is an exercise in genre filmmaking made by people who either don’t care about the genre their dabbling in or care too much about the gross bits that shouldn’t be lingered on.
Personally, what’s amazing about my undeniable burning hatred for Red Sparrow is the fact that I genuinely adore sleazy exploitation movies. There’s nothing in this movie on paper that should put me off. At yet the execution of all that sleazy material is so ill-conceived and off-putting that there was no way to enjoy or even appreciate what was happening. It wasn’t shocking in a way that provokes or thrilling in a way that entertains. Instead, Red Sparrow is a tedious parade of bad ideas that takes its damn time to weave a predictable story over two and a half painfully wasted hours. This movie should never have been released. The good news for the studio is that most folks are so disinterested in Red Sparrow that they won’t even bother to see it. If no one goes, no one can get offended and cause controversy. So bullets are dodged for the studio. As for everyone involved in making this vile mess? Well, they should be ashamed of themselves and when the movie bombs, they’ll deserve the Hollywood shunning coming their way. It’s a shame that physical film prints don’t exist anymore because this movie deserves to be set on fire and wiped from history.