20th Century Fox
Everyone wants to corner the market for the next big female action franchise. Thanks to a shifting climate in Hollywood and the successes of films like Aliens, The Hunger Games, or Wonder Woman, every studio wants to roll out the next female action hero. There’s a demand for these movies and a research proves it. Last year’s Black List actually highlighted many specs written by women and centering around female killers. Additionally, in 2016, a study done by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found women led 29% of the top 100 grossing films of the year, which was a 7% increase from the year before. Martha Mauzen, the study’s author said, “We have now seen over and over and over that female characters, when done well, they’re good box office.” And Martha wasn’t the only person to notice. There’s been a significant influx of films fronted by women thanks to booming box office numbers.
The world is changing and the demand for female characters who burst from the screen like warriors is very “in”, which is great because that means there are more films being lead by actresses. However, star power alone doesn’t make these movies compelling and that’s a lesson studios are hopefully coming to understand. In their hurry to churn out the next great female-fronted action film, studios are abandoning the character development necessary to make an action star of any gender compelling. This is what happened in the case of Red Sparrow the 2018 film starring Jennifer Lawrence based on the book by Jason Matthews. She portrays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina who has a devastating accident that ends her career. To survive, she chooses to become a Russian operative known as a Red Sparrow in exchange for protection and care for her ailing mother. A Red Sparrow is an intelligence agent trained to be a sexual shapeshifter and cold-blooded killer. Thanks to the training Dominika receives as a Red Sparrow, she can seduce anyone she encounters, making her the siren of the Intelligence world.
While in the build-up to its release many were making comparisons between Red Sparrow and the Black Widow solo film in the works at Marvel, a more realistic comparison is between Red Sparrow and last year’s Atomic Blonde. The Jennifer Lawrence actioner is almost like a lofty prequel to the Charlize Theron and David Leitch team up for the adaptation of graphic novel The Coldest City. Red Sparrow has a less contrived plot and snooze-worthy fight scenes, but there is a bit more care in terms of the unfolding of the story. In Red Sparrow, Dominika is essentially Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) before the double crosses are so involved they’re almost impossible to follow. More importantly, Dominika is a character who hasn’t had the time to harden from the cruelties she’s been exposed to. Lorraine, on the other hand, cannot be fooled by hope, kind words or even love. She knows how the intelligence community works and knows love can get you killed. Because of this, Lorraine finds trust to be an impossible sacrifice that will land her dead or worse, caught in a double cross.
Where Atomic Blonde succeeds that Red Sparrow fails, is in the execution of its perfectly choreographed fight scenes. I am never not stunned when I see Charlize Theron smoothly move on screen as though she was designed by God himself to be a killing machine. Even though the Atomic Blonde plot is flimsy, these fight scenes make it easy to suspend disbelief and immerse yourself in Lorraine’s world. Red Sparrow never pulls this off. According to Huffington Post, Jennifer Lawrence famously admitted to dieting for this film, but not to become ass-kicking ready. Instead, she got pin thin to pull off becoming Dominika, who begins her journey as an intelligence operative as a prima ballerina. However, there are about 10 minutes of ballet in this film and I didn’t buy a ticket to “Red Sparrow” to see if Jennifer Lawrence could pull off becoming a ballerina. I watched it to see a woman outsmart, outfight and outfox the male characters. Honestly, I think if Jennifer Lawrence had transformed her body into a killing machine and not a dancing machine she might have made Dominika more 100% more compelling.
I suspect, one of the other reasons Dominika isn’t entirely compelling is that she was written by Justin Haythe and brought to life by Francis Lawrence, both of which are men. Dominika is a victim of the state who’s trying to find a sort of balance of power so that she may achieve freedom at any cost. In this way she’s a lot like Jason Bourne, just sub out the memory issues for repeated sexual assaults. Although sexual assault is something most women will have to deal with in their lives, there really was no need to make Dominika or the audience repeatedly relive the trauma. Two rapes in the movie? GTFO. Clearly, a man made that decision. “Atomic Blonde” avoids this scenario entirely. Lorraine is totally sexually autonomous. She coldly deals with the death of her lover James and then switches her focus to a pretty French agent who she hooks up with.
Red Sparrow isn’t a bad movie. If I am being honest, I kind of liked it, but it felt like the plot revolved too much around making Dominika a sex doll. Literally, every male character she encounters tries to manipulate and assault her but the American operative, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and even he is no match for her sexy wounded bird routine. However, because Nate has a heart of gold, Dominika basically rapes him. Honestly, the sexual dynamic between Dominika and everyone in this movie is sort of bizarre. I realize we have to watch her grow and struggle but it really cheapens the fact that she is supposed to have been a top-tier athlete, and somehow there aren’t any memorable fight scenes in Red Sparrow. Dominika does rely on intellect, but she’s literally coached on what to do by all the other male characters. In Atomic Blonde, Lorraine doesn’t care about anything but getting out alive. She coaches the male characters to believe the reality she’s stringing along, making her the ultimate puppet master, but this made Lorraine’s character a bit flat for me. Even though she’s a killing machine putting the life on the line for her “job” is less compelling than actually giving her a soul. It wouldn’t even have been that hard, they should have made spyglass–the Stasi agent who memorized the list of double agents–an autistic child with a photographic memory.
Neither of these films is bad, but their plots are executed sloppily, as they never endear the protagonist. The thing about women is that we are able to dig deep in times of trouble and use the extraordinary advantage of love to help us accomplish something for the greater good of humanity. This is something Patty Jenkins understands and it’s why Wonder Woman set off a wave of ripples that Hollywood will desperately try to replicate. Where Red Sparrow and Atomic Blonde fail is in attempting to create female characters who react like men, which is why diversity in Hollywood is important. Having a woman involved in the early stages of developing these characters may have been the actual edge these female characters needed to be totally fleshed out.
Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer, and storyteller. During a decade-long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.
Sabrina Cognata | Contributor