Release Date(s)2018 (May 22, 2018)
Studio(s)TSG Entertainment/Chernin Entertainment (20th Century Fox)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B-
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is the prima ballerina for Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, until an accident results in an injury that ends her career. Having lost the advantage of this position, she has no financial means to care for her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis. So Dominika turns to her uncle Ivan, a senior official with the FSB. Ivan is happy to help her, but not unless she returns the favor by assisting in one of his investigations. Dominika thus seduces a Russian politician at Ivan’s direction and is forced to watch as the man is assassinated by the FSB. Since no witnesses can be left, Ivan gives her a choice: She can die… or become a permanent asset to the state by attending “sparrow” school, where she’ll be taught to work as a Russian operative, seducing enemy targets. On her first assignment, Dominika is tasked with uncovering the identity of a mole in Russian intelligence, who’s in contact with a CIA operative named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). When she attempts to profile and entice Nash, however, she soon discovers that the tables are being turned on her.
Directed by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend and the three Hunger Games sequels), Red Sparrow is a frustrating film. What it gets right, it gets so right that what it gets wrong is all the more glaring. In this case, the story is completely believable, which makes sense given that it’s based on a novel by Jason Matthews, who was himself a thirty-three year CIA employee. It turns out, there really was a “sparrow” school in Russia during the first Cold War. The film’s cinematography is exquisite too, as the settings are all practical and authentic. Red Sparrow was shot entirely on location, mostly in Eastern Europe, amid age-worn brutalist, baroque, and constructivist settings. The spy tradecraft depicted here is accurate, if a bit dated. And the cast is almost perfect. Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, and Matthias Schoenaerts each deliver as expected. Jennifer Lawrence is actually quite credible in the lead role, giving a surprisingly restrained performance. The problem lies in the fact that her character is so meticulously developed that most of the others are paper thin by comparison, including, unfortunately, Edgerton’s Nash. He’s good in the part, he just has very little to work with. We’re supposed to believe that Dominika is so good at reading marks she knows instantly that Nash is a good man. Nevertheless, she still trusts him too quickly. Their connection, and their inevitable romantic attraction, happens far too easily. It doesn’t feel earned. Making matters worse, the two CIA characters that support Nash are as stock as they come. All of this is a real shame, because there’s something potentially great in this film. It just doesn’t come together as intended.
Red Sparrow was captured digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 2.8K and 3.4K resolution) using ARRI Alexa cameras with Panavision lenses. It was finished as a native 4K digital intermediate, given a high dynamic range grade in HDR10 and is presented on Ultra HD at the proper 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. This is a gorgeous image, with beautifully photographed architecture that’s perfectly enhanced by the use of anamorphic lenses, creating a lovely elliptical bokeh effect, to say nothing of the way the glass handles light, and flattens the depth of field just slightly. The HDR grade is restrained and naturalistic, but still deepens the shadows while allowing the brightest areas of the frame to gleam realistically. And the wider color gamut strongly benefits the vibrantly-colored settings and production design. Just watch the film’s opening sequence, as the curtains open on the Bolshoi stage to reveal a richly-hued tapestry background. Then you see Nash walking through Gorky Park at night, as cold lamp light filters down through the thick atmosphere. Detail and texturing are nicely tight and refined. This isn’t quite reference quality, but the image is absolutely gorgeous nonetheless.
Primary audio on the 4K disc is offered in a fine English Dolby Atmos mix that delivers nice immersion, effective staging and atmospherics, and excellent overall clarity. Dialogue is clean, music and sound effects are well blended, and the panning is smooth and natural. This is a restrained mix, however, one that’s perfect for this film but isn’t really showy in any notable way. So while it serves its purpose well, don’t expect to be wowed here. Additional audio options include English 5.1 Descriptive Audio, Spanish and Polish 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Castilian, German, Italian, Czech, and French 5.1 DTS, with optional subtitles available in English for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Spanish, French, Castilian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, two different forms of Chinese, Czech, and Polish.
The actual 4K Ultra HD disc includes only one extra:
- Audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence
Subtitles for this commentary are available in many of the same languages listed above. The package also includes the film in 1080p on Blu-ray, a disc which also boasts the commentary and adds the following special features (all in HD):
- A New Cold War: Origination & Adaptation (12:42)
- Agents Provocateurs: The Ensemble Cast (15:21)
- Tradecraft: Visual Authenticity (13:28)
- Heart of the Tempest: On Location (10:56)
- Welcome to Sparrow School: Ballet & Stunts (12:12)
- A Puzzle of Need: Post-Production (14:08)
- Deleted Scenes (10 scenes, 12:20 in all, with optional commentary)
It’s a decent batch of material, which puts a genuine focus on the production effort. If you liked this film, most of it will be of interest. The commentary is solid too and there’s one deleted scene with Charlotte Rampling that probably deserved to be included in the film. Note that this package also includes a Movies Anywhere Digital Copy code.
Red Sparrow is an interesting spy thriller, one that’s better than some of the critical reviews would have you believe, yet also one that’s sadly let down by a unbalanced screenplay. Still, given that we live in a world now entering a new kind of Cold War that’s more complicated and dangerous than ever, this genre certainly deserves new attention by Hollywood. This film is at least a step in the right direction. Fox’s Ultra HD delivers excellent A/V quality and is worth a look. Just keep your expectations of the film itself firmly in check.
- Bill Hunt