Follow TV Tropes


Film / Red Sparrow

Go To

"When we are finished with you, the person you were will no longer exist."

Red Sparrow is a 2018 spy thriller film directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. The screenplay was written by Justin Haythe, based on the novel of same name by Jason Matthews.

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a prima ballerina for the Bolshoi Ballet, but a broken leg during a performance ends her career. Desperate to care for her disabled mother, she turns to her paternal uncle Vanya Egurov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking officer in the Foreign Intelligence Service (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki or SVR), who sends her to play Honey Trap to a Russian oligarch. He says she's only to swap out his cell phone with a bugged one, but then sends an assassin who garrotes the oligarch while he's raping her.

Afterwards, offered the choice of going to spy school or getting a bullet in the head as a witness, Egorova opts for the former and is trained by a cruel woman known only as Matron (Charlotte Rampling) as a "Sparrow", an operative taught to use every tool at her disposal, especially sex, to manipulate targets for intelligence work.

Meanwhile, CIA operative Nate Nash (Edgerton) is running a highly placed mole in the SVR. When a meet goes south due to Moscow police being a Spanner in the Works, he's reassigned to Budapest in hopes of finding a way to contact his mole and get him to work with another officer. The Russians now know they have a mole problem and figure the quickest way to find the spy is to get Nate to talk. So they send a sparrow to get close to him, Dominika Egorova.

Also stars Jeremy Irons as General Korchnoi.

Tropes in this film include:

  • Anachronism Stew: invoked deliberately to show the difference between East and West, but to the point where the late 70s Soviet decorations (interior, furniture, clothes, you name it) are placed over the 2010s world. The biggest offenders are probably cellphones, which are shown as something only a very wealthy oligarch can afford in Russia, while in reality everyone and their grandmother's cat has one.
  • Arc Words:
    • Variations of "identify what the target needs, and give it to them", instructions for the sparrows.
    • "Did I do well, Uncle?" Dominika's "Well Done, Niece" Girl line to Vanya. Used ironically at the finale after Dominika frames Vanya as The Mole, right before he gets a Boom, Headshot! from a Russian sniper while being traded to the Americans for her.
  • Artistic License Chemistry: Dominika bleaches her long medium brown hair blonde in a bathroom with a single box of dye: this process usually requires several boxes of dye and potentially a few days for color correction. Furthermore, in the following scene, implied to be taking place shortly after the makeover scene, Dominika gets in a chlorinated pool with her freshly bleached hair - an act that anyone who has bleached their hair knows is a major no-no as combining the two is likely to turn freshly bleached hair green.
  • Attempted Rape: Dominika is assaulted twice, once while acting as a Honey Trap to Ustinov (who is then garroted in the act), the second time in the shower at State School 4. The second time she beats her attacker senseless with the faucet handle.
  • Bait-and-Switch Gunshot: At the Prisoner Exchange, Nate says that The Mole will never make it across the tarmac alive, and indeed we're shortly shown a Russian sniper lining up. The sight picture shows Dominika, but then Vanya is shot.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Inverted: Dominika is beaten up frequently and it leaves lasting marks, including one incident where she deliberately provokes her own station chief to black her eye and uses it as blackmail against him and as part of her Honey Trap of Nate.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Dominika is let go from the Bolshoi after breaking her leg on stage, and turns to her uncle in the SVR to keep the state paying for her apartment and her mother's medical care.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Nate's glass, and the metka (spy dust): she planted it in Vanya's house. We're also led to believe that she sets up a bank account in Vienna for use in reeling in SWAN, when in fact she uses Vanya's name and passport number and the Americans' payoff to her in the frame job.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: General Vladimir Korchnoi is introduced at State School 4 disagreeing with Matron over the way Dominika fought off an Attempted Rape (he appears to think Dominika was right). He turns out to be the American mole, who turned on SVR after his beloved wife died during an overseas assignment due to Russian bureaucrats not letting her be treated in an American hospital.
  • Chest of Medals: In a medal ceremony scene at the end of the film, all the SVR characters are in full dress uniform, with many medals on the chests of the likes of General Korchnoi and Matron. Inverted with Dominika, who only wears the medal she was just awarded: the Gold Star of the Hero of the Russian Federation.
  • Codename: All the students and faculty at State School 4 are assigned cover identities and are not allowed to reveal their real identities to anyone else. Dominika's is "Katya". Later, she's given a cover ID for her assignment in Budapest, but discards it in favor of using her real name and inventing a new cover on the fly (that Uncle Vanya pulled strings to get her a job as an embassy translator). Nate easily sees through this, just as planned.
  • Comically Small Bribe: an exact sum of $250,000 is named for the information about a newest, state-of-the-art weapon system. By 2010s standards, it's a very low amount for a deal of that type: Bouche is implied to be under extreme circumstances to not ask for more. Still, you'd expect someone of that rank to sell their loyalty for a bit more, and even then Ivan Egorov is framed for taking that exact sum, which for his rank, would also be laughably low.
  • Country Matters: The only subtitled Russian sentence spoken in the entire film occurs when Volontov expresses his disgust at having to interact with SWAN while she's drunk.
  • Crippling the Competition: Sonya, jealous of Dominika's prima ballerina status, conspires with her boyfriend and fellow dancer Konstantin to break Dominika's leg during a performance. Dominika brutally retaliates against the both of them later.
  • Death by Adaptation: Uncle Vanya survived in the novel. In the film, Dominika frames him as The Mole rather than expose General Korchnoi, and he's shot by a Russian sniper during a Prisoner Exchange for Dominika with the Americans.
  • Death by Origin Story:
    • General Korchnoi's wife died while living with him in the United States because an SVR bureaucrat wouldn't let her be treated for a sudden illness in an American hospital. As a consequence, Korchnoi became an American mole to get back at the men running his country who value power over people.
    • Dominika's father and Vanya's brother, who isn't named in the movie (unless you read the patronymic in Dominika's full name, Vasilyevna, or "daughter of Vasily", which is only briefly visible on her files). Lacking him as a provider for her disabled mother is why Dominika joins SVR after being dismissed from the Bolshoi.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: The Femme Fatale Spy and The Baroness are both deconstructed through the Sparrow training program: while other spy stories have showcased the woman that uses seduction as a weapon as one that is perfectly okay with being sexually open as long as she gets away with her mission objectives and is relentlessly dominating and "a natural", this film showcases that there's a whole lot of denigrating and even brutal sexual work involved in the training alone, never mind actually applying it on the field.
    Dominika: You (Uncle Vanya) sent me to whore school.
  • Defiant Strip: In an attempted lesson on how being a Honey Trap involves doing distasteful things, Matron orders Dominika to give a male student who tried to rape her in the shower "what he wants". Dominika instead strips completely naked in a sexually dominant fashion and essentially tells the man he is to service her. This proves an Instant Turn-Off, and Dominika explains that what the man wants is "power".
  • Double Standard: In-Universe, Dominika is treated as the one at fault by the State School 4 faculty for beating the crap out of her attempted rapist, and is asked why she puts her dignity over the life of a valuable recruit. General Korchnoi saves her from consequences when she states that she serves the President, and to Viktor she owes nothing. In reality, despite Russia having a very patriarchal culture, Viktor wouldn't get away with this much of a violation, but in the movie, this shows that Korchnoi is the American mole and one of the good guys.
  • Dub Name Change: Dominika is not even remotely a Russian namenote , and so in the Russian dub, she's renamed to Veronika (the closest existing equivalent). Vanya is a diminutive form of Ivan, and only a very close friend or a relative could possibly address a state official that way. However, with all other details in depicting Russia, names were the least of the concerns regarding reception.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: General Korchnoi is horrified to learn that Vice-Director Egorov used his own niece in a political hit, nearly had her killed, and then sent her to State School 4 where a lot of recruits are seemingly trained against their will.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Matron's real name is never given; her dress uniform at the end of the film doesn't even have a nametape on it.
  • Exploitation Film: Heavily criticized for being this, both with regards to violence and sex.
  • Fan Disservice: Very little in the film would be considered particularly fanservice, as part of the point of the Sparrow's is to view sex with a clinical approach. In Dominika's early mission with Ustinov she strips down to her underwear, her nervousness and rigid posture does not make it particularly sexy, and goes even further when Ustinov pays an almost fetish attention to her still-prominent surgery scar from her broken leg.
  • Fluffy the Terrible: A sparrow is a small, unassuming bird that eats seeds and insects. Quite a name for a class of highly trained spies engineered to use any means necessary to get information from their targets, including murder and sex.
  • Gender Flip: Nate's Chief of Station changes from Tom Forsyth in the novels to Trish Forsyth in the movie.
  • Has a Type: Dominika notes that Nate sometimes hires prostitutes, always blondes, but then seems to feel guilty and overpays. From this she deduces that he has a thing for vulnerable blonde women and approaches him accordingly, including bleaching her naturally golden-brown hair vanilla blonde and provoking her own station chief to black her eye, and gets a membership to the gym where Nate works out so she can make contact.
  • Honey Trap: The Sparrows, who are highly trained to seduce targets and manipulate them into really believing it.
  • Incest Subtext: One scene has Dominika kissing her uncle Vanya on the lips. The framing and the fact she leaves right afterwards indicate she's manipulating him, too, which may be foreshadowing.
  • Instant Turn-Off: Invoked by Dominika. After she fights off an Attempted Rape in the shower at State School 4, Matron tries to get Dominika to service her rapist in front of the class, telling her to identify what he wants and give it to him. He tells her to strip and turn around, but Dominika instead takes off her clothes while facing him and commands him to get on with it. He can't get hard, and Dominika states that what he wants is power over her.
  • It Works Better with Bullets: Played for Drama. During her torture, Dominika is shown a video of her station chief being asked if he sold out Boucher and then being shot in back of the head when he denies it. The female operative commanding her torturers then puts a gun to the back of her head and asks her the same question. She denies it, and her torturer pulls the trigger on an empty chamber. Dominika promptly throws up in shock.
  • Knife Fight: An astonishingly brutal one ensues as Dominika rescues Nate from torture at the hands of Matorin. The result is a messy, nasty, bloody fight that ends with Dominika desperately stumbling to find a phone and call for help.
  • The Loins Sleep Tonight: Dominika's would-be rapist is unable to get it up when she acts as the dominant partner.
  • Male Frontal Nudity: Their first day in State School 4, Dominika and a male cadet are brought to the front of the class and ordered to strip naked by Matron. Dominika refuses, but the male cadet obeys without question, and his wedding tackle is clearly visible for a couple seconds when Matron says he can put his clothes back on.
  • Male Gaze: There's heavy emphasis on Dominika's body, and often it is about how the men around her perceive her.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Dominika is an Anti-Hero example, trained to manipulate people to extract information and turn them into Russian moles. She instead manipulates her own superiors and fellow operatives to advance her career in SVR while becoming a Double Agent for the Americans.
  • Mole in Charge: Played straight, and exploited. SVR suspects they have a highly-placed American mole from early in the film. At the climax, General Korchnoi identifies himself to Dominika as the mole, offering her the opportunity to sell him out to secure SVR's trust. She instead frames Uncle Vanya.
  • My Country, Right or Wrong: Of the "if wrong, to be set right" variety. General Korchnoi is spying for the Americans in hopes that he'll be able to save Russia from its own leaders one day. He tries to get Dominika to sell him out so she can replace him, but she instead frames Uncle Vanya.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The previews just seemed to be about an espionage plot revolving around seduction. Thus audiences are in for a surprise with the Training from Hell full of sex and violence, which is even followed by more rape and torture.
  • Out with a Bang:
    • A nonfatal example early in the film when Uncle Vanya gives Dominika information that the stage accident that broke her leg and ended her career wasn't an accident: the danseur she was partnered with flubbed the move on purpose because he was sleeping with Dominika's understudy. She promptly walks over to the Bolshoi Ballet, catches them having sex in the ladies' shower, and beats the crap out of them both with her cane.
    • Ustinov is garroted to death while raping Dominika.
  • Politically Correct Villain: for all their cruelty and brutality, Russian operatives in the film (save Volontov) are strictly against any form of discrimination in their ranks: Dominika gets her boss nearly fired over as much as hitting her, and the Matron tells Anya, who's disgusted to learn that the politician she just learned about is gay, that they have no right to judge him (and makes Anya "service" said politician minutes later).
  • Pragmatic Pansexuality: The Sparrows are taught to seduce their targets regardless of their own preferences.
    Matron: Must have been some boy in a field behind your house. A girl at a rainy bus stop? We'd like to think it makes a difference. But it doesn't. It's just flesh.
  • Rape as Drama: The film is in large part an exploration of the relationship between power and sexual violence against women. Also discussed: expected to service her own would-be rapist by Matron and told to "identify what he needs and give it to him", she instead turns the tables on him, stripping down and acting as if she expects him to service her. When he suddenly can't get it up, she tells the class that what he wants is power over her.
  • Real Award, Fictional Character: One of the resolution scenes includes Dominika being awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Russian Federation, Russia's equivalent to the Medal of Honor, for (falsely) unmasking The Mole in SVR.
  • The Reveal: The film keeps you guessing about who's really manipulating whom until the last five minutes. Dominika is manipulating everyone, allowing Nate turn her into an American Double Agent while manipulating her own superiors into thinking her an utterly loyal Determinator (the second part is true, the first part not so much) and framing her Uncle Vanya as the Mole in Charge they've been looking for. When the bag is pulled off Vanya's head, the Americans including Nate are momentarily shocked but play along.
  • Right Through His Pants: The first time they have sex, neither Dominika nor Nash even take off their underwear.
  • Senseless Sacrifice: At the beginning of the film Nate meets his high-value contact in a park, and when some cops drive up he fires his gun to get their attention on him, resulting in a frenzied chase to the American embassy. His superiors told him that the cops just thought it was a drug deal and had no idea what he and his contact were doing. Even worse, by drawing their attention like that it alerted the Russian government to the idea that he was protecting a high-value target, and thus they know they have a mole. All this makes him ineligible for further CIA field work. The only reason he is allowed to continue is the contact will ONLY talk with him.
  • Sequel Hook: After framing her uncle as the American mole and being bemedaled by the Russians, Dominika answers a phone call from her American handler. Unfortunately, the poor financial performance of the film means sequels adapting the other books in the trilogy are unlikelyinvoked.
  • Sexual Karma: It's telling that the only two sex scenes in the film that not only aren't attempted rapes, but are actually passionate, are between Dominika and Nate. Also, General Korchnoi overriding Matron when she blames Dominika for fighting off an Attempted Rape earlier proves to serve as foreshadowing of The Reveal that he's The Mole.
  • Shameful Strip: Their first day in State School 4, Dominika and a male cadet are brought to the front of the class and ordered to strip naked by Matron. Dominika refuses but her classmate complies. When that same classmate later tries and fails to rape her and she is then expected to service him in class as a lesson in doing what you don't want to for the sake of the mission, he tells her to take off her clothes. She inverts the trope, stripping off in a sexually dominant fashion, instantly killing his boner.
  • Sherlock Scan: Invoked as part of Sparrow training: the operatives are taught to analyze mental and emotional weaknesses of a subject and act on them to fulfill their mission objectives. Even within the school, Dominika is already shown to have an uncanny aptitude for figuring out marks.
  • Sickening "Crunch!": in the beginning, when Dominika's leg is broken. If you look closely, you see the exact moment her partner lands, and can notice that he specifically aims to land that way.
  • Spanner in the Works:
    • Nate's cover in Russia is blown not because of Russian spycraft, but because Moscow police on a routine anti-drug patrol stumbled on his meet with his mole. Nate thinks he's been made, fires his gun at the ground as a diversion so his mole can get away, and runs for the embassy.
    • Dominika, having turned as a Double Agent for the Americans, comes within a hairsbreadth of being outed and shot because an American operative moves too early and gets the mole to whom she alerted them suspicious. She panics in the middle of a London street and gets run over by a box truck, with a Russian spy looking on.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • "Anya", Dominika's Sparrow School classmate. The worst that happens to her in the movie is she gets humiliated in front of her class; in the novel, she commits suicide because she couldn't handle the depravity she had to face every day. (The scene of her suicide was cut from the film.)
    • Korchnoi is correctly identified as the mole in the novel, and is killed in the Prisoner Exchange. Here, Dominika frames Vanya instead, and Korchnoi even attends Dominika's promotion.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: For all the silliness of the premise and the plot, it has quite a few:
    • Dominika is a world-class famous ballerina and a relative to an open state official of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service. Her "undercover" facade lasts less than an hour when she's sent to Budapest, and in the end she chooses to just drop it and use her real name. You'd wonder why they even bothered to make her a fake identity in the first place.
    • All three times Dominika is actually able to injure someone in a fight, it's when the opponent does not expect her to strike. The moment her enemy faces her and is armed, it goes just as well as you'd expect, and she only survives because someone else cripples her opponent from behind.
    • Dominika (possibly intentionally) tells Marta that she was an accomplice in a top-level black-ops political kill that nearly made her a collateral loss (in the movie, Ustinov is a generic oligarch, but in the book he is specifically mentioned as Putin's rival and a threat to him). Marta's corpse is found an hour later, and Dominika herself receives her first and only warning not to disclose any of that information to anyone.
    • When Nate brings Dominika in for recruitment, the Americans are very skeptical about her motivation, and do not take Nate's opinion into account because he's clearly emotionally attached.
    • In a deleted scene, Dominika visits her ballet mistress after the hospital, and promises that in a few months she'll be able to dance again. The latter is unmoved and coldly tells her than even if the multiple-fractured bone does heal this quickly, she will never recover completely, and won't dance at the level of the Bolshoy, let alone as prima.
    • Note how ever since the Director realizes that he has a mole, he constantly presses both Zakharov and Egorov into action, with Zakharov offering direct approach and Egorov constantly dismissing it as potentially harmful, the Director becoming less and less pleased with each iteration. When evidence against Egorov finally arrives, it just solidifies what he was already suspecting.
    • Dominika, when tortured, does not confess to betrayal, but that does not fool anyone: they know it was her, they just want details on how and why. It's only when Egorov realizes that he can use the trust of Americans to his advantage that Dominika is released and given a green light to proceed.
  • Take a Third Option: When the mole reveals his identity to Dominika, he gives her a choice: defect, or turn him in and continue his work after he disappears. Dominika chooses to frame her uncle instead.
  • Torture Is Ineffective: Multiple scenes of brutal torture in the film all completely fail to get useful information. Dominika and Nate are just that tough (plus in the latter case, they are merely pretending and not doing the real thing), while Volontov is innocent but is shot anyway.
    • Also, notably the torture methods shown are anything but what's massively practiced in Russia. The only real method shown is hitting the suspect through something soft(usually a phone book, towel in the film), which is what you do not want to do to a potentially innocent agent whose main power is her looks. Everything else is either methods more familiar to American audience (like hard rock torture and waterboarding) or improvised techniques like pretending to flay someone's private parts.
    • Amusingly, in 2019 a penal colony in Russia actually tried the music thing on inmates, since it technically cannot be attributed as torture; however, instead of hard rock, they used pop songs.
  • Translation Convention: The only Russian spoken in the film is when Nate initially greets Dominika outside the gym, and when Volontov and Dominika are meeting with SWAN. The rest of the time, the Russian characters speak English to each other.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: the original novel was presented as based on real practices of the Russian intelligence. While there is some truth to it (for example, in Soviet Union the only "legal" form of prostitution was the one that serviced foreigners in an attempt to obtain valuable intel), the film and book alike mostly refer to Urban Legend and non-existing places, people and even sources (like Upper Volga Kama-Sutra, whatever that might be). Still, Honey Trap operations are rather common in any Eastern intelligence agency, physical elimination of witnesses is far from being fiction, and therefore it may be very loosely assumed that similar events could've happened in reality.
  • When Harry Met Svetlana: Nate is the earnest American male, Dominika is the Russian operative sent to manipulate him and turns into a mole for the Americans.