“Red Sparrow” captures attention for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a star vehicle that showcases Jennifer Lawrence, and let’s face it—J-Law’s always interesting. Secondly, the story reveals a particularly vile weapon in the arsenal of a Russia for whom the Cold War never ended, and whose communist ghost seeks reincarnation.
Red Sparrows are gorgeous Russian spies, trained to seduce information from unsuspecting CIA agents and politicians. They’re licensed to kill.
Of course, the “honey trap” spy mode has existed since the advent of spying, but seeing the soulless, communist version of it can provide viewers with a few more nails for the communism-killed-100-million-people coffin.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is the Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina. Unfortunately, her male dance partner somehow manages to land on her leg in the middle of a performance, terminating her career. When she discovers it was no accident, she goes after her up-and-coming rival (lover of said dance partner) with a golf club. Gives new meaning to the mob term “whack.”
Now Dominika’s jobless, soon to be homeless, and desperately needs money to take care of her ailing mom (Joely Richardson). What to do? Turns out, Dominika’s subtle, wicked Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the deputy director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR), the Russian CIA.
Uncle Ivan informs Dominika that her teeing-off on her rival only broke the girl’s jaw, but he’s a talent scout for the kind of killer instinct Dominika’s displayed and lures her into doing a one-off job for him.
All she’s got to do is one little thing: sit at a bar, let herself get invited up to an official’s hotel room (an official who’s seen her dance and who’s under suspicion of treason), and switch out his cellphone when he’s not looking. Do this one little thing for Uncle Ivan, and mommy gets medical care.
Of course, it’s not that simple. She unwittingly sets the stage for a particularly gruesome assassination, and oops—now she’s a witness. Whereupon Ivan pulls a checkmate move on his nubile niece: She can be a loose end that needs tying up, or go to “spy school.”
Spy training. Right. Off she goes to the ghastly State School 4, a co-ed “Kama Sutra” academy for spies, where the youthful beauties practice target shooting, lock picking, and seduction as a martial art. The head school mistress (Charlotte Rampling) presides. It’s a good setting for a horror film.
There follows a test of wills between Rampling’s instructor and J-Law’s unwilling student, who manages to outwit the head matron’s unsavory “assignments” while managing (barely) to stay within the parameters of what’s allowed.
Called Up Early
Uncle Ivan’s got an assignment for her before she even graduates. She needs to get out in the field and get involved with one Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative stationed in Budapest who’s recently contacted a mole in the Russian intelligence community.
She’s supposed to cozy up to Nash and ferret out the mole’s identity. However, per the occupational hazard of this particular profession, things go a little sideways: Dominika starts developing feelings. Or so it would appear.
Uncle Ivan’s convinced she’s up to the task, and Nash and his team think they can eventually turn her into a double agent. Meanwhile, Dominika has a mind of her own. And the only one who ultimately recognizes the extent of her genius-level devious talent is Jeremy Irons’s character, as top-level SVR brass.
Convoluted and Brutal
There’re two problems with this flick: One, you’re not going to be able to keep track of the endless double-crossing; two, how does a world-famous Bolshoi ballerina suddenly morph into an undetectable, untraceable Russian spook?
The only believable disappearing act here is Lawrence herself becoming a tough Slavic spy. It’s the same toughness she introduced to the world as a poverty-stricken Tennessee mountain girl in her breakout film “Winter’s Bone.”
If the film’s intent is to reveal that real spy work, and especially Sparrow tradecraft, isn’t the romanticized James Bondian foolishness we enjoy reveling in, it does rather a good job of that. It’s what I mentioned at the outset: If you want to get a sense of the corrupt underbelly of old-school communist espionage, see this film.
The only fun to be had here, though, is Mary-Louise Parker’s snicker-engendering, boozy American official selling her treasonous soul by selling satellite defense system codes to Dominika, in London.
The main problem with the film is the assault horror and straight-up torture Dominika is required to deal with as a Sparrow. The violence is gratuitous, and the movie’s way too long for that.
Lawrence herself can actually handle all this without appearing demeaned, but one wonders why the director would require these extremes of her and, ultimately, why she’d choose to do this film. Because J-Law’s got a lot of little kid fans from “The Hunger Games” who really ought not to be seeing this film.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Rated: R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language, and some graphic nudity
Release Date: Friday, March 2, 2018
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5