RED SPARROW: 3 ½ STARS
The trailers for “Red Sparrow,” a new thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence, promise an action-packed movie experience that could rest comfortably alongside the action-packed “Atomic Blonde.” But like its main character, all is not what it seems. This isn’t “Atomic Blonde: Electric Boogaloo,” it’s an austere, cold film, and not just in its bleak Russian backdrop.
Based on a novel by former Central Intelligence Agency operative Jason Matthews, it tells the story of Russian prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) after a career-ending injury forces her into early retirement. With a sick mother at home and an apartment paid for by the Bolshoi Ballet, her now former employer, she is in desperate need of money. “I can make sure your mother is looked after,” says her uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), who also happens to be the deputy director of the Service of the Russian Federation. “That you can stay in your apartment but only if you can be of use to the state. Do it for your mother.”
When she survives her first “job”—seducing a wealthy Russian tycoon—Uncle sends her to the Sparrow School, a facility where, “selected for their beauty, strength and ability,” candidates are trained to be, “weapons in a global struggle for power.” The syllabus includes courses on seduction and manipulation, exploiting weakness, how to love on command and trigger sexual desires. Most importantly, they are taught to harden themselves against the sentimental.
It’s a tough learning curve and the stakes are high. “If you cannot be of use to the State I will put a bullet through your head,” says the school’s sadistic headmistress (Charlotte Rampling). After a rough start Dominika dodges the bullet to become one of the Krushtov-era program’s best students.
Her first assignment sees her sent to Budapest to seduce American operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and uncover the name of his Russian double agent working for the CIA.
“Red Sparrow” plays like a typical spy movie with less action and more kink. There’s barely a car chase, very few bullets are loosed and most of the violence happens off screen. Instead, director Francis Lawrence calibrates the violence for maximum shock effect. Ugly, skin-crawling torture scenes are hard to watch and the camera lingers on a particularly nasty throat cutting situation that manages to say more about the hardening of Dominika’s spirit than any lines of dialogue could.
Lawrence is in virtually every frame of the film, creating a portrait of a woman willing to do whatever it takes to survive. She wisely avoids doing a Boris and Natasha accent, favouring a convincing but mild Russian cadence that sounds more authentic than her more seasoned co-stars. I’m looking at you Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds. As Dominika she is indomitable, keeping us guessing where her allegiances lie until the very end.
By the end credits, “Red Sparrow” feels overlong as the twists and turns pile up like empty vodka bottles outside the Kremlin bar. It is unsentimental; a hard-as-stone—although occasionally ludicrous—neo-Cold War thriller that goes heavy on the espionage before succumbing to the obvious, wrapping up the story with a neat bow. For a film that lives in the darkened corners of life outside the law, it goes too far out of its way to illuminate the story’s inner workings, taking on the feel of a John le Carré reject.
DEATH WISH: 2 ½ STARS
For twenty years, from 1974 to 1994, Charles Bronson starred in “Death Wish” films as Paul Kersey, a successful New York architect turned vigilante after his wife was murdered and child assaulted. “If the police don't defend us,” he growled, “maybe we ought to do it ourselves.”
In “Death Wish,” the new Eli Roth-directed reboot of the series, Bruce Willis steps in, beating out—but not beating up— Sylvester Stallone who was originally cast as Kersey.
This time around the backdrop is Chicago. Dr. Kersey (Willis) is a surgeon whose work in the ER gives him an up-close-and-personal look at the effects of violence in his city. He gets an even closer look at the carnage when home intruders viciously attack his wife (Elisabeth Shue) and young daughter (Camila Morrone). The healer turns killer, exchanging the scalpel for a gun, which he learns to fire by watching a YouTube show called Full Metal Tactics.
“I love my family and when they needed me most I failed to protect them.” As bad guy bodies (and snappy one-liners) pile up he becomes headline news—the newspapers billboard “Grim Reaper Alerts”—but is he right to take the law into his own hands? Is he a folk hero or domestic terrorist?
With gun control front and center in public debate right now “Death Wish” could have been a timely and relevant film. It could ask questions. When does a good guy with a gun, shooting bad guys with guns, become a bad guy with a gun? It could have been a poignant film about a man pushed too far but there is nothing poignant about Roth’s reboot of the seventies series. It’s not a character study of grief or a portrait of Chicago’s escalating crime rate. Satisfied to take the low road, it’s a revenge film pure and simple. Audiences are meant to applaud every time Kersey blows away a bad guy and not think too deeply about the normalization of dangerous behaviour.
Willis, whose resume is dotted with charming hero types, plays Kersey as a wounded man who finds strength in his revenge. He’s locked, loaded and ready to rock. His most famous character, off-duty New York City Police Department officer John McClane, was always keen to dispatch a villain but he didn’t go hunting random victims or torture them once he found them.
We are supposed to get the great contradiction of Kersey’s life—he’s a healer in the O.R. but a killer on the street—but the movie gives equal weight to the yin and yang. He’s a good guy because he cures people and a patriot because he rids the streets of undesirables. To be truly effective he must be one or the other. The muddy antihero middle is an ugly, exaggerated male violence fantasy. Is Kersey a folk hero or a killer? The movie can’t seem to decide.
“Death Wish” will provide ammunition for discussion, so that’s something. Gun violence was a hot button topic when the first movie came out in 1974. It still is, but the conversation has changed.
THE PARTY: 4 STARS
At the end of the chamber dramedy “The Party,” you’ll be glad you were able to be a voyeur and not actually attend the get-together in person. It’s "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" with more characters and twice the vitriol.
Kristin Scott Thomas is Janet, the newly appointed U.K. Health Minister and host of the party. When we first see her she’s holding a gun on a guest. It’s that kind of party.
Cue the flashback.
Gathered together are Janet’s nearest and dearest. There’s sharp-tongued best friend April (Patricia Clarkson), her almost ex and professional life coach Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), jumpy financial whiz Tom (Cillian Murphy), whose cocaine and aforementioned gun add some spice to an already edgy situation. On the periphery, for a time anyway, is Bill (Timothy Spall), a ticking time bomb with a glass of champagne.
Director Sally Potter wastes no time in presenting her sophisticated but sour soiree. The verbal—and text—fireworks begin almost immediately. Sparkling dialogue drips from the mouths of these actors like liquid gold. When Jinny announces she’s having another baby, Martha says, “Triplets. People. Small people.” It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but the magic is in the delivery. The best lines are reserved for Clarkson, whose blunt, plainspoken words add fuel to the already hot state of affairs.
“Although it may have a deleterious effect on your career I think you could consider murder,” she purrs at one point.
Canapés smoulder, truths are revealed—there will be no spoilers here—and lives are shattered, all in just 71 minutes. “The Party” is a delightfully nasty piece of work, artfully realized by Potter and delivered with just the right amount of venom by a dedicated cast.