Gus Writes: “Red Sparrow”

Gotta love when Gus  Russo takes the lead here at AFan! Herewith, his excellent review of Red Sparrow!

As a fan of espionage thrillers, especially classics like The Spy Who Came in From the
Cold (John Le Carré) and From Russia With Love (Ian Fleming), Red Sparrow was right up my alley. HOWEVER, it’s not for everyone. It’s a starkly filmed, brutally conceived,
and only a slight exaggeration of real world spy tradecraft.

For the last two years I’ve been immersed in that world, researching my own non-fiction espionage book (out next October), and I can tell you that five minutes into this movie, I knew it was written by a real spook. In fact, author Jason Matthews spent three decades as a CIA officer, and he seems to be especially channeling the vicious eighties decade, when the CIA-KGB cat-and-mouse game was at its deadly zenith: assets, rolled-up moles, and basement executions abounded, with 1985 dubbed “The Year of the Spy.”

Unlike the sublime silliness of the Mission Impossible and Bourne flicks,
Sparrow shows the audience how it really goes down in the trenches. Here you’re in the world of “honey traps,” “brush passes,” “spy dust” (METKA), “dead drops,” “dry cleaning,” and “mole hunts.”

The only inside term I quibbled with is, strangely enough, the title. In the real world, trained KGB seductresses are known as “swallows,” not sparrows (I suppose having the lead character attending “Swallow School” was a bit
much.) But they have existed since the beginnings of the professional espionage; it’s the murky, inevitable merging of the world’s oldest profession and the world’s second oldest profession.

Technically, the movie is top-notch. Terrific cinematography and direction is accompanied by a sumptuous, Russian inspired score by the always dependable James Newton Howard. And, oh, the acting! The entire cast delivers the goods in spades—I especially liked Charlotte Rampling’s channeling of From Russia’s “Rosa Kleb,” as the Sparrow School instructor.

But Jennifer Lawrence carries the whole enterprise on her very able shoulders, as she is (once again) jaw dropping in her total commitment to a role, which gets me back to that “not for everyone” bit. J-Law’s character “Dominika” is subjected to all manner of brutalization, and it’s sexually explicit, bloody and crystal-
clear graphic. Imagine From Russia with Love on steroids and directed by Tarantino.

How the movie dodged an NC-17 rating is beyond me. Hard to watch at times, but also authentic. Look away if you must, but the executions and tortures that actually took place
in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka KGB headquarters are the stuff of legend. A local Moscow woman, who became a KGB folk figure known as “the Cellar Babushka,” was hired solely to clean up the bloody messes. Similar executions had also been performed at the notorious Lefortovo Prison located on the outskirts of Moscow.

Consider yourself warned. I loved it.

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