The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Red Sparrow

Red Sparrow, Death Wish
Film reviews by Amy Diaz


 Red Sparrow (R)

Jennifer Lawrence is very retro Cold War chic in Red Sparrow, a movie about which country, Russia versus the U.S., has the most gullible spies.
Twist ending: It’s a tie! Both sets of spies are pretty gullible! Or so cynical they don’t actually care about their missions! 
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a talented ballerina at the Bolshoi, which pays for her apartment and the expensive medical care for her mother (Joely Richardson). But then she is horribly injured on stage — like, horribly! It’s so over-the-top gruesome that in one of those Final Destination movies this kind of scene would almost be played for laughs.
No longer able to dance, Dominika stands to lose everything. Luckily she has a creepy uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts, styled as a dead ringer for Putin), who works for the shadiest of shady state spy agencies. He says, hey, maybe just hang out with this one gross dude for a bit and then I’ll make sure you can stay in your apartment and your mom can keep her medical care and all will be well. Because Dominika has been too busy dancing to ever see a movie or read a comic book or watch a peak cable show, she is shocked when the gross dude turns out to be super gross and when her uncle’s henchman shows up to kill the gross dude.
Of course, because she’s seen the Russian government execute someone, Dominika’s choices for her future are now (1) bullet to the head or (2) to become a Sparrow, which is the code name for a kind of secret agent trained in the art of seduction. Hilariously, this sexy-agent training happens at a state-run school where everybody dresses in prison matron clothes and extremely sensible shoes. 
Dominika’s first mission is to charm Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent. The Russians believe he knows the name of a mole inside the Russian spy agency. If she can win his trust, Dominika can find out who the mole is.
Of course, there are many doubles to be crossed along the way. Nate apparently has seen a movie before, so he’s well aware that Dominika is part of some kind of con. He also thinks she has the potential to be flipped.
Interestingly, this kind of spying isn’t so much a game of deception as a game of honesty. Dominika tells the truth to everybody about everything. The decider in which side she’s truly on will turn out to be who is told the truth last.
And that little bit of story art is really the only interesting thing about Red Sparrow, which is so long (two hours and 19 minutes) and so full of dodgy Russian accents. There’s a lot of unnecessary backstory in this movie, which weighs down what should have been an hour-and-40-minute bit of spy fun. (Though, as is also true with Death Wish, current events really sap these should-be low-effort movies of their enjoyment.) The spy-versus-spy scenes — kind of updated, less-stylized Atomic Blonde — are when this movie is at its best. Everything to do with Dominika and her mother and her uncle and the constant threat of sexual violence that comes with the idea of Sparrows made me want to reach for the fast-forward button. 
Lawrence is fine — cartoony and silly but not really any more cartoony or silly than in, say, mother!. Edgerton’s character is sillier than he plays it and the pair are surrounded by some nice supporting characters including CIA agents played by Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey, an American political type played by Mary-Louise Parker and various Russian spy officials played by Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Irons. 
Red Sparrow could, with just a few cuts, have been lighter, quicker and ultimately more enjoyable fare. C
Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity, according to the MPAA. Directed by Francis Lawrence with a screenplay by Justin Haythe, Red Sparrow is two hours and 19 minutes long and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. 
Death Wish (R)
Bruce Willis sleepwalks through the revenge fantasy Death Wish, a dull Eli Roth-directed remake of the 1974 Charles Bronson movie.
Which I have never seen, full disclosure.
Here, Paul Kersey (Willis) is a doctor who spends his days digging bullets out of people in gun-violence-plagued Chicago. After a home robbery goes wrong, his wife (Elisabeth Shue) is murdered and his daughter (Camila Morrone) is left in a coma. Though police detectives Raines (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise) actually make a good (cynicism-based but pretty solid) argument for the crime eventually being solved and the perpetrators sent to jail, Kersey starts to despair when he sees no signs of that.  
A chance appearance of an untied-to-him gun and a general sense of frustration coalesce in Kersey as a desire to do something with what I assume is his anger (Willis seems incapable of showing anger, or any emotion, but I’ll fill in the blank that is him and say “anger” is what we’re supposed to see). He sees a carjacking and winds up killing the robbers. The event is caught on film (that, luckily, doesn’t identify him) and Kersey is given the name “Grim Reaper” by social media. His vigilantism goes viral, with call-in radio debating his actions even as Kersey becomes more confident in his killing. Another bit of story convenience puts him in the path of the people who killed his wife and he focuses his indeterminate rage on the cause of DIY justice. 
Somewhere in the middle of Death Wish, I started to wonder if this movie was building up to some kind of point of view about violence, specifically gun violence. The way the movie showed the destruction done by bullets close up and the way it intercut scenes of commentators arguing about vigilantism versus the rule of law, I felt like there might be some sneaky message tippy-toeing into what is, by outward appearances, a kind of brainless action movie. But then, by the end of the movie, I realized no. Nope, this is just a brainless action movie — and not even a particularly well done or rah-rah action movie. Something more straightforwardly about a man seeking his idea of justice when the system appeared to fail him would actually be a more enjoyable watch on, like, an id level. 
This movie just feels flat and dumb, a feeling augmented by the flat, emotionless performance of Bruce Willis, who here appears to have lost any ability to act. He’s got “blank” and he’s got “smirk.” Those are his two speeds and anything else is not just beyond him; it stops the movie dead. In one scene he explains his actions and the motivations behind them to his brother, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, and I found myself thinking that a movie where D’Onofrio was Kersey might be something. I think D’Onofrio could be darker, nuttier and more empathetic than Willis, who is just a faded John McClane cardboard cut-out. 
Death Wish is an unnecessary remake that is so blah even its lead actor seems bored. D
Rated R for strong bloody violence, and language throughout, according to the MPAA. Directed by Eli Roth with a screenplay by Joe Carnahan, Death Wish is an hour and 47 minutes long and is distributed by Annapurna Pictures. 

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