“Red Sparrow”

After seeing Atomic Blonde, the Kingsman movies, and Daniel Craig’s 007 movies, the last movie I expected to see was a slow burn spy thriller that doesn’t glorify espionage. Red Sparrow is that revisionalist spy film!

Dominika’s (Jennifer Lawrence) ballet career ends after she breaks her leg on stage. In order to take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), she becomes a Russian spy called a ‘Sparrow’ – a master in seduction and manipulation. She then meets CIA operative Nash (Joel Edgerton) and falls for him, despite him being her new target. Will Dominika complete her mission or go rogue?

Red Sparrow has a lot of controversy surrounding it due to its sexual and physical violence. This is disturbing and bleak film, but I admired it. I normally hate movies that feature excessive sexual violence and torture; however, Red Sparrow kept me intrigued because it uses that content to debunk the spy genre. These spies don’t drink martinis and seduce the princess after stopping world domination! They’re traumatized and broken afterwards.

There’s no glorification in watching Nina seduce her would-be rapist classmate in front of their class. There definitely isn’t glorification in watching someone get skinned alive. Instead, Red Sparrow explores the uncompromising nature of being a spy. Dominika is trained to be soul less, so she has to seduce and torture. She doesn’t want to, but she needs to for her survival. Frances Lawrence’s (no relation to Jennifer) slow burn direction adds more tension to the violent scenes in Cronenberg-like fashion.

Jennifer is committed in her performance as Dominika and continues her streak of fearless performances. She at times plays a convincing survivor, but also has calculated moments. Is she playing both sides? Or looking out for herself? Her relationship with her incestuous uncle Ivan (a creepy Matthias Schoenaerts) adds more complexity to the film, not only exploring abuse, but gender politics and control. Ivan clearly has an infatuation for his niece, so it’s not surprising if he’s using his power to get closer to Ivanka. Ivanka’s cat-and-mouse game with Ivan takes some surprising turns that will discomfort and surprise viewers.

While Red Sparrow is gory, fascinating, and haunting, it’s also occasionally silly. There’s an extended sequence involving Dominika and a drunken US politician (Mary-Louise Parker) that derives from the film’s tone, briefly turning the film into a buddy comedy. Parker is a nice comedic relief, but it’s an additional twenty minutes that serves no purpose to the story.

Screenwriter Justin Haythe has come a long way from his previous film (the equally ambitious-though-awful A Cure for Wellness). Haythe has a point with his grisly content this time, but he can work on shortening his scripts. Still, Red Sparrow is a daring thriller that treads on both political commentary and exploitation film.

Grade: B

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“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Given how the kinetic and talented Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) directed Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it’s no wonder he doesn’t like doing sequels.

Set a year after Eggsy (Taron Egerton) thwarted the apocalypse in The Secret Service, a new diabolical villain named Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) surfaces with a plot to legalize drugs. Poppy destroys the Kingsman headquarters and kills several agents, forcing Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) to partner with the Statesman, their American counterpart. They also find Harry (Colin Firth) alive, who joins them on their mission.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle was one of my most anticipated movies since I was a big fan of its predecessor and Vaughn stayed committed to the sequel. While The Golden Circle has its moments, Vaughn still commits the biggest sequel sin: he tries too hard to top the first one. The Secret Service is a thrilling spy movie tribute that was an even balance of hardcore violence, political satire, and heart. The Golden Circle has some of its predecessor’s heart and satirical elements, but disappointingly focuses on violence and juvenile humor.

The action is undeniably impressive in The Golden Circle and Vaughn wastes no time throwing us in the middle of it. The opening car chase/fist fight in Eggsy’s cab is a fun, frenetic action sequence; the climactic gun fight at Poppy’s headquarters is a gadget-filled fact-paced spectacle reminiscent of the infamous church scene in The Secret Service (not as good, though).

There were complaints about the level of violence in The Secret Service, but I personally felt the gore was used sparingly and had greater impact; the film still focused on interrogation, covert ops, and surveillance with action thrown in the middle. The Golden Circle uses violence nonstop and there’s almost no spy sequences, save for one that’s a prolonged, offensive rape joke.

It’s great seeing Firth back as Harry; he’s once again a fun, competent action hero. Watching Harry struggle with coordination made his sequences exciting to watch. Egerton is once again likable as the underdog Eggsy. Some viewers will hate that the film focuses on his relationship, but I felt it was refreshing since Eggsy was growing up.

Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, Julianne Moore is a great blend of scary and funny as Poppy. Her plot to control drug distribution is a sharp political commentary on the War on Drugs.

I could have done without most of the Statesman characters. Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Channing Tatum play the American agents, but they’re only on screen for a few minutes each. If you saw the trailers, you saw all of their scenes. On the other hand, the great Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martel from Game of Thrones) is a blast as rogue Statesman, Whiskey.

The Golden Circle excels when it focuses on the Kingsman and their character arcs. Had Vaughn just focused on Harry and Eggsy and kept the new characters and their screen time to a minimum, The Golden Circle could have been as good as its predecessor.

Grade: C+

“Atomic Blonde”

If any movie hasn’t already claimed action sequence of the year, I think David Leitch’s (“John Wick,” the upcoming “Deadpool” sequel) spy thriller “Atomic Blonde” will. A six-minute-long shot featuring a barbaric fist fight, shootout, and car chase has to be worthy, right?

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is called to Berlin to obtain a mysterious list. Like most spy movies, this list contains information on undercover agents. She has a buddy cop dynamic with a debauched rock star-like operative, David Percival (James McAvoy) and the two race against time to find the list.

“Atomic Blonde” excels in genre splicing. It has the wide frames, slow pace, and convoluted narrative you’d find in a spy thriller, as well as the neon visuals, brutal violence, and cynical anti-hero found in Neo-Noir. Leitch is somewhat unrestrained in his direction, but “Atomic Blonde” is a blast regardless.

The neon visuals suit the film well due to its setting. “Atomic Blonde” takes place near the end of the Cold War during the collapse of the Berlin Wall, so there’s a strong 80’s aesthetic. Each song is used appropriately (New Order’s “Blue Monday” and George Michael’s “Father Figure”) and we get a brief history lesson on East Berlin. We don’t often see Berlin Wall-related movies, so it’s a refreshing change of setting.

Theron and McAvoy  both deliver fun-yet-committed performances. Between Theron’s stuntwork, dialect, English accent, and expressive moments of silence, she’s the perfect action heroine. Between McAvoy’s charisma, line delivery, and sense of humor, he steals nearly every scene from Theron.

I mentioned “Atomic Blonde” is convoluted and I’m not kidding. By the end, my friend and I were both struggling to figure out the twist ending. Does a spy movie with a cliched list plot need to be this difficult? As I’ve said in past reviews, a confusing ending is enough to warrant a sequel. “Atomic Blonde” is based on a comic book, so it’s bound to happen.

Grade: B

“Captain America: Civil War”

The third installment of a great franchise is usually the black sheep of the family. “Alien 3” (1992), “Spider-Man 3” (2007), “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006), “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), etc. But how to the Russo Brothers keep topping themselves and their previous installments?!

“Captain America: Civil War” takes place a year after last year’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and after another catastrophic mission, Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt’s character from the 2008 “Incredible Hulk” movie) steps in and proposes a program to register all the Avengers as government operatives. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t a fan of this while Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is okay with being put in check.

The situation further escalates when Rogers finds his best friend Bucky (Sebastian Stan) wanted for more crimes, prompting him and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) to protect Bucky and enlist Scarlett Witch/Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to help. Iron Man, on the other hand, has Jim Rhoades/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a young kid no one’s heard of named Peter Parker aka Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Who will win?!

“Civil War” begins like the same gritty spy movie/superhero hybrid that the great “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) was, but then evolves into something greater. This is an epic movie about a dysfunctional superhero family, plain simple. Rogers and Stark both have a strong case of sibling rivalry while Bucky is well, um, the black sheep! There’s much more to the movie than family metaphors… Like moral ambiguity!

“Civil War” shares the traits of some of the best spy and political thrillers, including “The Hunt for Red October” (1991) and “Crimson Tide” (1995) in which neither of our protagonists are right or wrong. It’s a debate. Would you want to surrender your freedom and be restricted? Or would you feel okay with restriction laws, knowing it’s potentially preventing more destruction?

We also get some suspenseful and masterfully directed action sequences, including one well-developed and cathartic fight between both teams at an airport. This fight emphasizes each member’s wit, power, and flaw as they beat the crap out of each other. It’s also just long enough. It’s not drawn out like the “Age of Ultron” climax.

Each cast member has their moments with Evans portraying Rogers as self-righteous, but also self-aware, Downey, Jr. playing Stark as vulnerable and lonely, Stan playing Bucky as a soldier with a lot of demons, Boseman playing T’Challa as honorable and vengeful, Holland playing Parker as a lovable smart-ass, and Rudd playing Lang as an everyman excited to be part of something bigger (it’s a better Ant-Man movie than last year’s “Ant-Man”). Daniel Brühl, of “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) and “Rush” (2013), is chilling as a mysterious villain obsessed with the Avengers.

For an ensemble comic book movie, “Civil War” is a fine example of how to confidently manage a large number of characters without getting lost in weaker subplots. I’d recommend it to comic book fans and anyone who wants to see a great, fun summer movie.

Grade: A+