RED SPARROW. There is something — a great number of things, probably — to be said in art and cinema and literature about the renewing of hostilities between the United States and Russia, the questionable end of the Cold War these three decades on and the macho-posturing, democracy reducing, oligarch good-old-boys clubs running the show on both sides. But making a muddled, deliberately conventional, notably overlong spy thriller in the style of a bygone era doesn't add much to the conversation; with Red Sparrow, that is precisely what we get.
In present day Moscow, Bolshoi ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), relies on the state to reward her hard work with a comfortable place to live and adequate medical care for her chronically ill mother. She knows herself only as a dancer, so when jealous machinations put a premature end to her career, she is lost. Enter Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) — the character name has to be a joke, right? The tone of the piece doesn't seem to allow for even that much humor. He's highly placed in state intelligence and, seeing terrible capability in his niece provides her with information regarding the conspirators against her and then watches with sick satisfaction as she metes out her justice. This proves to be Dominika's initiation into the world of espionage, wherein she is almost immediately made complicit in a high-profile murder. Her knowledge of the assassination affords her only two options: die, silence ensured, or enter a training program to become a "Sparrow," an intelligence operative whose primary weapon is sex. She doesn't choose death, obviously, and so spends the next act of the movie in an austere boarding school atmosphere being alternately demeaned and assaulted, and tempering her resolve.
Meanwhile, a CIA agent called Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) — again with the names; it's like a Red Scare comic book — has been pulled out of Moscow, where he had been operating as a highly placed informant from within the Russian intelligence establishment until said operation became compromised. Re-assigned to Budapest, he becomes aware of Dominika, who has been made aware of him. There's some will-they-or-won't-they (they will), a distracting subplot involving a U.S. senator's drunky chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) peddling state secrets, followed by double-crosses on double-crosses. And then it ends with a nice neat bow on it.
Despite its ostensible topicality and the presence of some eminently recognizable stars, Red Sparrow plays like something from decades past, which in some cases would be a compliment, but here speaks more to the staid, tentative tone and moribund pacing. Though punctuated by a few moments of graphic violence and nudity, the movie never rises to the intended level of severity or impact. Instead, those scenes feel incongruous and, in their intentional, over-wrought casualness, somehow even more gratuitous than they otherwise would. To be fair, there is an attractive, if formalized aesthetic firmly in place and the cast does fine work with the material. But the whole thing, in its dour determination, fails to deliver on its significant promise.
Also, and I'll grant that this is a point of minor bitchery, can't we just decide to either cast native speakers and allow them to speak their own language or simply use uninflected English? This business of a global cast affecting accents bugs, here more than anywhere in recent memory. Russians speaking to Russians don't sound like Americans and Europeans speaking English with "Russian" accents. R. 139m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
DEATH WISH. The original 1974 adaptation (noteworthy mostly for its early Jeff Goldblum cameo) of Brian Garfield's novel is a troublesome, problematic thing, much like the long career and international fame of its taciturn star, Charles Bronson. It capitalized on the paranoia and nastiness of '70s America and launched an unironic franchise that, from experience, doesn't bear revisiting and certainly doesn't merit contemporary recycling. Reinvention, maybe, finding ourselves as we do in a new but all-too-familiar era of looming international conflict, seemingly unceasing domestic strife, hideous violence and crumbling infrastructure. But director Eli Roth, working from a "new" adaptation by Joe Carnahan, apparently isn't interested in interpretation or insight, choosing instead to ape the original, altering it only in as much as it has now become a vehicle for a pale, drooping Bruce Willis.
Willis plays Paul Kersey, a Chicago trauma surgeon whose domestic bliss is destroyed by home invaders possessed of ineptitude and cruelty in equal measure. In an inexplicable transition, Kersey takes to the streets, becoming a Glock-wielding deliverer of nonsensical vengeance via street justice. Some lip service is paid to the role of social media in elevating him to mythical status but it's just background for the stupefyingly linear trajectory of the narrative.
While I think it unfair to accuse Roth or Death Wish of celebrating gun violence or downplaying its devastating effects any more than other films, I will take him to task for putting out a remake that neither adds to nor reinterprets the original. There is nothing shocking or scary or new here, which is all I would really have hoped for from Roth. There isn't even a trace of the sticky-floored funk of the grindhouse, just vanilla with a little blood in it. Where re-watching the Bronson version at least leaves one feeling uncomfortable about the politics of its violence, reminded of a place and time to which we hope never to return, this is vacuous, antiseptic and unimportant. R. 108m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
—John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
GRINGO. A broke, buttoned-up businessman (David Oyelowo) goes to Mexico on behalf of his Machiavellian corporate bosses (Charlize Theron, Joel Edgerton) and finds himself ransomed and on the run. R. 110m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE HURRICANE HEIST. Heavily armed thieves go after a Treasury vault during a massive southern storm. With Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten and lots of CG tidal waves and explosions. PG13. 103m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT. A family is terrorized night after night by masked baddies in an abandoned trailer park. Starring Christina Hendricks. R. 85m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THOROUGHBREDS. Posh teen besties (Anya Taylor-Joy, Olivia Cooke), one of whom is a sociopath, reunite and join forces against their enemies: a dad and a dealer. R. 92m. BROADWAY.
THE QUIET MAN (1952). An Irish-American boxer (John Wayne) heads back to the old country and Maureen O'Hara. R. 175m. BROADWAY.
A WRINKLE IN TIME. Keep your eye out for Sequoia Park in director Ava DuVernay's adaptation of the YA fantasy novel starring Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. 92m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
THE ANIMATION SHOW OF SHOWS. More than a dozen animated shorts from around the world. 92m. MINIPLEX.
ANNIHILATION. Natalie Portman plays a biologist/veteran leading a team (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Jennifer Jason Leigh) into an environmental hazard zone that turns out more mind-bending and terrifying than anticipated. It's violent, intense and a marvel of set decoration, production design and imagination. R. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
BLACK PANTHER. One of the more interesting characters in the Marvel movie-verse in a big, exhilarating movie from director Ryan Coogler with a fine villainous turn by Michael B. Jordan, though some of its fascinating, nuanced story is lost in requisite superhero noise. PG13. 134m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
FACES PLACES. A road documentary in which director Agnes Varda and photographer and muralist JR bond as they schlepp a photo booth in a truck around France. PG. 89m. MINIPLEX.
GAME NIGHT. Jason Bateman and an underused Rachel McAdams lead an evening of couples competition-turned-survival-game that has its moments but too few for its funny cast. R. 100m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. Hugh Jackman sings and dances as P.T. Barnum because a sucker's born every minute. With Michelle Williams and Zac Efron. PG. 105m. BROADWAY.
PETER RABBIT. A clever and ultimately kind live-action/animated comedy barely based on Beatrix Potter's books. With James Corden voicing Peter, Domhnall Gleeson as Mr. McGregor's control-freak nephew and Rose Byrne as a rabbit-sympathizing artist. PG. 93m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
THE SHAPE OF WATER. Guillermo del Toro's exquisite love story/fable/tribute to monster movies of yesteryear showcases its stellar cast, including Sally Hawkins as a mute woman who falls in love with an amphibian (Doug Jones) and Michael Shannon as an evil scientist. R. 123m. BROADWAY.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Linda Stansberry