It’s safe to say audiences should leave any expectations they may have in terms of spy thrillers behind when walking into “Red Sparrow,” and for that matter, any expectations they may have about films starring Jennifer Lawrence.
Intricate, patient, and at times bracingly brutal, the film captivates with mind games, chess moves and countermoves, and well delivered personal drama.
At its center is yet another fearless performance from Lawrence, who seems willing to take on any on-screen challenge for the sake of a compelling character and riveting storytelling.
It’s not perfect – its pace may be too deliberate for audiences demanding more conventional action, and the number of times the film goes to the proverbial well in terms of sex scenes skirts the border of gratuitous.
However, Lawrence’s committed effort here as well as the film’s many twists, turns and reversals do much to justify its elaborate construction and progression.
What’s it about?
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi, whose on-stage talent on a nightly basis entertains the wealthiest and most powerful of Russia’s elite.
Dominika’s personal life, in contrast, is one of familial dedication and survival. She cares for her ailing mother in their apartment near the theater, the home and medical care all provided by the ballet company and, by extension, the government.
When Dominika finds herself suddenly robbed of her ability to perform, she’s offered a more harrowing and dehumanizing way of serving the state. With little alternative to maintain her mother’s care, she accepts.
Dominika is then trained as a “Sparrow” – a specialized agent trained primarily in the arts of seduction and emotional manipulation. Sparrows identify need in their targets and transform themselves to meet whatever need that might be to fulfill their missions.
Dominika’s first target is Nate (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative Moscow believes is working with a mole within the Russian government. The assignment seems simple – get close to Nate and learn the identity of the mole.
Nate’s no rube, however, and he quickly identifies who and what Dominika is. From there, the game begins in earnest and it becomes personal.
Where do Dominika’s true loyalties lay? What is her endgame, and is Nate an enemy, a potential ally, or just a piece in a greater scheme?
No matter how many spy movies or novels you’ve seen or read, you won’t really know until the very end.
A spy story like few others
Based on the novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, “Red Sparrow” avoids the now well-worn trappings and tropes of the Bond and Bourne films.
There are no car chases, no gun battles or explosions. There’s interrogation, torture and when people die, they die quietly and often brutally.
Without all the set pieces, eye candy and fisticuffs that define those other spy franchises, “Red Sparrow” has to rely on its cast and plotting to keep audiences’ attention. Thankfully, in addition to Lawrence, the film features a stellar ensemble highlighted by Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, and rising star Edgerton, who imbues charisma and vitality into what is, admittedly, the film’s least interesting character.
All that sex
Naturally, with sex and sexuality being oft used weapons in a Sparrow’s arsenal, “Red Sparrow” features a liberal amount of skin and on-screen coupling.
What’s important to note about all that sex is that none of it is romanticized, and some of it is difficult to watch. The film approaches nudity and sex scenes the way Sparrows are taught to regard their bodies and the act – as tools to further its objectives – and that approach, in turn, sets a distinctively dark and ominous tone.
Is there too much of it? The answer to that will depend on your personal tastes. What’s indisputable is that it’s not there solely to earn the film an “R” rating – it serves a vital purpose, and in most instances it’s effective.
Fans of Jennifer Lawrence and the “Hunger Games” films who are curious about “Red Sparrow” should again be warned to leave any expectations born from those movie experiences behind as they walk into this one. It’s arguably as different a film in terms of tone, mood, and impact as humanly possible from that series and from Lawrence’s filmography in general.
That’s not to say they or anyone else should avoid the film. This is an enthralling work of spy fiction powered by strong performances and visceral imagery – it’s one you might not be able to get out of your head for a while.
It’s not the most fun night out at the movies, but for those who give it a go it certainly will be a memorable one.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons. Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Running time: 139 minutes
Rated R for for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.