Jennifer Lawrence plays a Bolshoi prima ballerina who becomes a sex weapon for a hush-hush Russian intelligence agency. Alas, the listless espionage thriller Red Sparrow doesn’t live up to its trashy-fun premise.
It’s not smart enough to be completely captivating or trashy enough to be considered an escapist absurdity. And no, the Oscar winner can’t quite pull off the Black Swan-meets-La Femme Nikita role. Heck, I’m not convinced anyone short of Meryl Streep circa 1978 could have pulled off this role. It’s a beyond-high-concept character concoction that requires complete mastery of Russian dialect, the control of a professional dancer and the mindset of a crafty prostitute. Lawrence acts as if she knows she’s in over her head. Not for lack of trying.
In a stunning prologue, her Dominika suffers a gruesome injury during a performance that ends her career. Faced with losing her government-funded apartment as well as health care for her beloved ailing mom (Joely Richardson), she accepts an assignment — from her leering, sneering powerful uncle (Matthais Shoenarts) of all people — to seduce a shady goon and steal his cell phone. This doesn’t end well.
Now that she’s a witness, Dominika is manipulated into becoming a “Sparrow.” Translation: Lure targets and extract information the old-fashioned R-rated way. First comes demanding training, which she dubs “whore school.” (Think the opposite of Professor X’s curriculum in upstate New York.) Soon, Dominika is sent out in the field. Her first assignment revolves around going to Budapest to find the identity of a Russian mole feeding intelligence to an American CIA agent (a bland Joel Edgerton).
The Russians are convinced she’s up to the task. The Americans think they can turn her. Dominika has her own agenda. You will not be able to keep up with the double-crossing agents that double cross for the sake of double crossing.
How could a high-profile figure in the Russian arts world possibly go undercover? Is blonde hair dye from a Hungarian drug store really supposed to be an effective disguise? This plot hole is never addressed. Instead, we’re supposed to buy into a burgeoning relationship between Lawrence and Edgerton even though their chemistry is colder than Moscow in January.
More distressing is that director Francis Lawrence puts his star through the ringer. The actress is raped and brutally tortured. During training, she strips buck naked and lies spread eagle against a desk, her genitals obscured by a man’s strategically placed elbow. She seduces in flimsy swimsuits, evening gowns and sexy lingerie. And just to add to the ick factor, she and her uncle share an incest vibe. My theory is that Lawrence agreed to the role because she felt somewhat indebted to the director (no relation), who helmed three of her Hunger Games movies.
The gratuitous violence and ogling is nauseating to watch and serves little purpose to a story that already runs well more than two hours. There’s no reason for this kind of film to be so dour, no matter the current political climate between the two countries. (Just re-read the first sentence of this review.) A welcome scene, in which Lawrence deals with a boozy turncoat character (Mary-Louise Parker), is proof that a lighter version of Red Sparrow got axed somewhere in the editing process.
Instead we’re left with a heavy thriller that manages to be both underwhelming and overcooked. Lawrence isn’t the only one seeing red.
Red Sparrow opens in theaters on Friday, March 2
Also published on Medium.