Review of Netflix’s Sweet Girl
By Hector DeJeanOctober 4, 2021
Isabela Merced stars alongside Jason Momoa in Netflix's action-thriller Sweet Girl, available to stream now on Netflix. Read on as Hector DeJean reviews!
When Sweet Girl debuted on Netflix on August 20th, it instantly became the most popular offering on the site, enticing viewers with its medley of dynamic fight sequences combined with a crime thriller story, throwing in a twist worthy of an early-career M. Night Shyamalan. Jason Momoa plays a sympathetic dad going after the big pharma honchos who prevented a drug from reaching the public—a drug that would have saved his wife. If Sweet Girl had just been a film in which Aquaman punched a Martin Shkreli clone in the groin, that would have totally been worth the watch, but there’s a lot more to this movie and its performances.
Opening in media res as Momoa is chased by the authorities to the top of PNC Park baseball stadium in Pittsburgh, Sweet Girl quickly flashes back to happier times when Ray Cooper (Momoa), his wife (Adria Arjona), and their daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced) are hiking through the woods, and a voice-over by Momoa muses, “Parents and their children—where do we stop and where do they begin?” In movies like these, such scenes exist only to show how much the protagonist has to lose, and sure enough, we’re soon in a hospital where Ray’s wife is dying of cancer. A doctor has hope that a treatment called Sparrow can save her, but all hopes are dashed with a pharmaceutical corporation called BioPrime, led by the unctuous Simon Keely (Justin Bartha, doing his best Shkreli) pays the manufacturer of the generic version of Sparrow to delay the release. Seeing Keely on a call-in news show, Ray calls and tells Keely on the air, “If my wife dies, it’s your death sentence,” promising to do the job with his bare hands. Thus all the pieces are arranged on the board, and the play begins.
Months later, after his wife has passed, Ray gets a call from a journalist who wants to meet up and talk about BioPrime’s sabotage of Sparrow—someone big is behind it, someone who doesn’t want to appear in any headlines. Ray meets the journalist on a train, with Rachel following, and also turning up for the conference is Santos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), an assassin who puts a knife in the journo and who tries to do the same to Ray. Rachel temporarily stops the killer, but after fisticuffs in the tight confines of the subway car, Ray ends up on the platform with a knife wound in his chest.
The story jumps ahead 24 months, where Rachel is training in her dad’s gym, getting into the ring with larger opponents and convincingly taking them down. When Rachel goes home, she chats with her dad and soon realizes that he’s planning on confronting Keely, who’s coming to town for a fundraiser. The confrontation, taking place in a cell-like freight elevator, leaves Keely and his bodyguard dead, and sends Ray and Rachel on the run, pursued by the FBI. Not just the feds, but Santos also returns, spurred by his shadowy boss to clean up this mess.
The rest of the movie follows Ray’s clever schemes to work his way up the chain and find out who is running this crooked show. Ray, in his plaid flannel coat and baseball cap that signify ‘working class’ has more tricks up his sleeve than your average tough guy, and at times the action looks more like a superhero film. But then any movie with Jason Momoa is going to have some element of fantasy to it, because it’s inevitably going to be watched by people who really wish they could be Jason Momoa.
A word about the action; fans of the genre have seen kung fu, and then wire fu, and gun fu—it may be time for a new ‘fu’ for fights in enclosed spaces. We’ll call it storage-closet fu, best exemplified by the brawl in an elevator in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Another Netflix series, Daredevil, had a fight coordinator named Philip Silvera arranging a spectacular single-shot donnybrook that took place in a narrow hallway, followed in season two by an outstanding brawl in a stairway. Sweet Girl also has a stairway fight, and I was surprised that Silvera wasn’t the fight choreographer here (for this one, Jeremy Marinas did the honors, having worked with Momoa on the Apple+ series See, and coordinated the fights on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. among many other productions). Momoa always delivers in these scenes, plus he really is as good an actor as he is an action star. Momoa’s sweet spot is playing a warrior who takes his parenting seriously.
Ray’s relationship with Rachel makes Sweet Girl about more than just fight scenes, and Isabela Merced holds her own with the drama and the action, really coming alive in the last act. It really helps that Rachel knows how to throw a punch, and is a lot more than just a sounding board for her dad’s conscience. As the story moves along, it becomes a little tricky to determine if Ray or Rachel is the one in charge of this vengeance spree—soon we see Rachel out-scheming the schemers, and delivering beatdowns that put Ray to shame. Merced, whose previous acting credits seem to have been a lot of shows and films for kids, seems to be staking her claim to more badass roles.
Going back and watching it a second time, I saw that Sweet Girl plays fair with its audience—the late-act twist is hinted at by some of the earliest scenes, and by several little touches throughout. [Spoilers, of sorts—Ray and Rachel don’t make eye contact much, and frequently talk to each other while looking into mirrors and window reflections.] The music, which is an ominous, minimalist hum in the earlier half, switches to a full dramatic sound later on. And Pittsburgh has a very high-sheen look to it—I imagine the residents of the city will be pleased with how sleek and glitzy their region looks in some scenes. Let’s face it, this is probably as good as Pittsburgh has ever looked in anything.
Sweet Girl fits perfectly on Netflix alongside the Marvel shows Daredevil and The Punisher, and original movies like Extraction and The Old Guard. The only bad thing about it is the title—but it’s not so much inappropriate as it is intentionally misleading. Rachel isn’t sweet (and she isn’t really a girl—hardscrabble circumstances forced her to grow up early), she’s determined and unstoppable, and she fulfills every fanboy’s wish of living up to a daunting Momoa standard.