Review – A Russian Katniss Everdeen? Nyet! (“Red Sparrow”)

Looks like Katniss is trading up with a Russian accent and NO bows and arrows this time. Not sure how Peeta’s gonna feel about this! With female spy movies like Columbiana, Salt, La Femme Nikita, and the recent Atomic Blonde, it looks like guys like Jason Bourne and James Bond might be out of a job soon.
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Based on the novel by Jason Matthews, we have two stories that run into each other. Story #A:
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a Russian prima ballerina with the world famous Bolshoi Ballet and supports her sick mother, but someone said, “Break-a-leg” to her too many times and snap! Bye-bye ballet career. Pitied by her lecherous uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for Russian intelligence, he gives Dominika a hard choice… work for the State as a spy, or get a bullet in the head. Having  a brain and a fiery temper, she decides that mommy dearest comes first, so off to “Sparrow” training she goes.

At training camp, Dominika doesn’t learn fancy fighting skills, fire arms mastery, or any other of those James Bond-ish things. She’s taught the art of spying through sexual manipulation, mind-games, and some lock picking, ’cause you never know when you’ll need that. After displaying her (*gulp*) sexual resources in class one day, she’s tagged for an assignment, and that assignment is story #B. Say hello to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative working in Moscow who also has a secret mole working for him inside the Russian HQ. But after Nash’s cover is blown, there’s a chance the mole might be discovered as well.

This is where the two stories converge, as Dominika travels to Budapest and is told to “get friendly” with Nash to discover the name of the mole. Using her training, she slowly seduces Nash, but he sees right through her and the two are soon caught up in each others spy-lives, telling each other their true missions. But as the Russians are breathing down Dominika’s neck for results, Nash’s CIA people want to recruit the Sparrow for their side. Meanwhile, Dominika’s devious Sparrow roommate, Marta Yelenova (Thekla Ruetan) has made a deal for stealing top secret floppy disks (remember those?) from a tipsy U.S. traitor (Mary-Louise Parker).

There’s grisly murders, ghastly tortures, a whole lotta nudity, double & triple crosses, mcguffins and confusing time-lines, in this very, very long 2hr and 20min Cold War movie that really, really takes it time unfolding a story, but doesn’t give any emotional investment in the process. The Cons of this movie are in Justin Haythe’s (Revolutionary Road) screenplay adaptation, which does NOT have the usual slam-bang spy action thriller of a Jason Bourne, kick-ass fighting of Atomic Blonde, or the bullet-ballet of A Better Tomorrow. It moves slowly and deliberately with real-life spying and, while interesting at times, gets pretty boring in its content.

Thank goodness director Francis (I made all the Hunger Game movies!) Lawrence was there to give this movie the boost it needed. He’s directed Jennifer Lawrence before, but never like this (naked, tortured, naked & tortured), and she is remarkably restrained here as a Russian who goes from an emotionless ballerina to an emotionless spy. Edgerton is good, as always, but Schoenaerts stood out as the soulless uncle. The movie was in desperate need of editing; at least 30 minutes easy could have trimmed or re-shot. But I will say this, for a hard-core spy picture (without all that James Bond thrill-a-second action, gun-play, fighting, and car chases) it was unexpectedly refreshing!

                    

La Femme Nikita  aka Nikita (1990) 

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Four years before he struck gold with his explosive crime drama about a sociopathic assassin (Leon: The Professional), writer/director Luc Besson made a low-budget thriller about a female assassin. He also rewrote this movie years later into Point of No Return, an Americanized version directed by John Badham.

It’s late one French night and a bunch of addled-brained teens break into a pharmacy to steal drugs, and in the process, end up killing a bunch of cops. They all die, save for one strung-out girl named Nikita (Anne Parillaud). But instead of sentencing her to death, she’s sent to a secret government facility to begin training because of her ruthless tendencies. Her handler, Bob (Tchéky Karyo), gives her a choice: either learn to be a contract killer or receive her death sentence as planned. Yeah… tough choice. Although she’s ratty-haired, scrawny, and barley talks, she gives it her best shot and, after three years, she’s blossoms into a beautiful (and lethal) young lady.

Now that she’s earned her freedom from “The Centre”, she’s got her own apartment, a new life, a new name (“Marie”), and a boyfriend named Marco (Jean-Hugues Anglade). However, Marco doesn’t know that sweet, fun-loving Marie is really a gun-toting assassin when she gets special phone calls. He thinks she works late nights at the hospital and is just embarrassed about her childhood. Hoo-boy! After a few ‘assignments’, Marie (Nikita) is working herself up the assassin ladder to better contracts, all the while falling in love with Marco.

>For their engagement gift, Bob gives them a first-class vacation trip to Venice, but it’s all a ruse: Marie is told to carry out an assignment while in her hotel bathroom and Marco is right outside the door! Yeah, no pressure, no pressure at all! With a super-important assignment coming up AND Marco getting suspicious, Marie is having a tough time focusing on her next job: stealing government documents in a heavy-guarded embassy. To say that the job almost gets botched is an understatement. People get killed, her cover is almost blown, Marco leaves her, and a trigger-happy “cleaner” (Jean Reno) goes quite bonkers.

In the end, which is NOT what you’d expect, Besson paints a somber picture, but one that remains true to the overall flavor of the picture. Parillaud as Nikita/Marie is simply marvelous as the irrational, frightened, unsure woman who grows into the steadfast and calculating femme fatale. Karyo as the stone-faced and emotionless Bob demonstrates an inner complexity within the man. This is SO much better than the sanitized, mainstream American version done three years later. *It’s subtitled in French, but you can switch over to an English dubbed version on the DVD.

In this movie you can see the beginnings of what would be one helluva career in movie-making for Besson. He’s directed the outrageous (The Fifth Element, Lucy), written great screenplays (Taken, The Transporter), and made epic-fails (The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Valerian/Thousand Planets), but he still keeps going. What’s next for Besson? Two sequels to his previous films: Lucy and Columbiana. BTW: La Femme Nikita was also a TV series that ran in the mid-90’s.

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