In “Red Sparrow,” Jennifer Lawrence plays a Bolshoi Ballet dancer turned into a sex-is-her-weapon Russian spy. She seduces, flirts and her spy boss (Matthias Schoenaerts) is always remarking how cunning she is, “two steps ahead” in the cross and double-cross intrigues of this shadow world.
And even though she’s the best paid actress on Earth and an Oscar winner, it’s a stretch to see her in most of the guises her character, Dominika, is supposed to don. En pointe on the stage? Sultry seductress? Poker-faced gambler with her life, terrified and tortured, fearful for others? All these attitudes have a robotic quality in her performance in this tricky, twisty thriller.
But that kind of works in the film, an athletic, insanely-focused young stoic from a culture where it’s mostly the men famous for weeping.
Throwing her into a couple of sex scenes, plus showers, swimsuits, neo-stripteases as part of her spy “training,” and a couple of sexual assaults can seem exploitative, or inserted as misdirection plays added to the script to change our focus from her generally expressionless mien.
The film also surrounds her with the likes of Schoenaerts (“Far from the Madding Crowd”), who plays the sinister uncle who recruits her into the spy game after a ballet injury ends that career, the leonine Ciaran Hinds (“Munich”) as the boss’s boss and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons (another high ranking commissar, even though they don’t call them that in the “new” Russia). Joely Richardson plays Dominka’s deathly-ill uninsured mother, a most scary Charlotte Rampling is “The Matron,” the Lotte Lenya-esque agent-trainer ripped out of “From Russia, With Love,” and a delightfully tipsy Mary Louse Parker plays a “mark.”
So it doesn’t matter much that Lawrence suggests nothing other than a frigid, professional interest in the American (Australian Joel Edgerton) spy she is supposed to pursue, who in turn tries to recruit her as a double-agent. No conventional blossoming love affair springs from this, none that Lawrence lets us feel, anyway. From her frequently-unclad and perfectly fit body to her Bolshevik bangs hairstyle, the lady is all ice-cold business.
The end of her dancing means Dominika must find another way “to be of value to the State,” purrs her seductive spook of an uncle. That’s how he gets her into the Red Sparrow program, a deep-cover collection of spies chosen — male and female — for their beauty, their allure, their willingness to make themselves available to foreign operators, oligarchs, “enemies of the State.”
“Whore School,” Dominika calls it.
The Matron teaches one and all that “Every human being is a puzzle of need. Learn to be the missing piece, and they will give you anything.”
These are the best scenes in the film — chilling, sexual, violent, expositional and believable. Rampling is the very picture of menace in them, a Mother Russia Nurse Ratched.
There’s a mole in their spy hierarchy, a CIA agent (Edgerton) is that mole’s handler. Dominika is given a new name and life and sent to get that name from him. She must tease, tempt and bargain for that info, looking out for herself and her sick mom. And she must fend off the sexual advances and murderously double and triple crosses of her assorted bosses to accomplish this.
Lawrence tying her fate to director Francis Lawrence, veteran of her paint-by-numbers “Hunger Games” pictures, shows loyalty but wasn’t the smartest play here. He handles the violence — bloody brawls and interrogations — and intrigues well enough. But Lawrence relies on her star power and persona to create empathy with the viewer. Little in her performance invites it. The normally more animated Edgerton dials down his visible intensity to match her tone, which further cools their “hot” scenes together.
The pacing is “Black Panther” slack, a 100 minute movie crammed into a 140 minute box.
And as much pleasure as one gets out of Lawrence’s stone-faced pairings with the formidable Irons, Schoenaerts and Rampling, her third act duet with the dazzling Parker (of “RED”) reminds us of what this one-dimensional “Sparrow” is lacking — the spark of life.
Rage and fury she lets us see, and an awful lot of her toned-and-fit body. There’s still not much of anything — faked vulnerability, charm and physical attraction — that would draw us, or a potential target, into her trap. A better director would have challenged her to try for that.
MPAA Rating:R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciaran Hinds, Bill Camp, Joely Richardson
Credits:Directed by Francis Lawrence, script by Justin Haythe, based on the Jason Matthews novel. A 20th Century Fox release.
Running time: 2:19