film review: red sparrow

Spies lead sexy and dangerous lives, a mainstay Hollywood conceit that Red Sparrow makes sure you won’t forget. After an injury forces prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) to seek help from her politically connected uncle, a distasteful favor escalates into bloodshed she wasn’t meant to witness. Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) gives her a choice: die to protect the secret or enroll at State School #4, otherwise known as “Sparrow School”, and train as an intelligence agent. Fearing for the care of her ailing mother, Dominika chooses the latter.

Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika Egorova in Red Sparrow

Sparrows must hone more than their wits; the Matron (Charlotte Rampling) instructs them in the finer points of seduction and results to sexual humiliation when necessary to make a point. After the discomforting nature of their education is made abundantly clear, Dominika receives her first assignment. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative in Moscow, has resurfaced in Budapest after fleeing the country to protect an asset known only as “Marble”. She must get close to Nash and secure the name of his source in the Russian government, by any means necessary.

The pluck Dominika relied on after her injury hardens into a steely sense of self-preservation as her mission progresses. Promises are fluid, loyalty has a price, and intentions are at their clearest when muddied by misdirection and betrayal. Lawrence makes for a good femme fatale-in-training, though she is admittedly better than the material presented. As her American counterpart Edgerton doesn’t fare as well, a mark made less interesting by a lack of chemistry with his seductress. Schoenaerts is appropriately slimy as the SVR-employed uncle. Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons round out an impressive supporting cast that does admirably well, even if they too feel a little wasted.

Red Sparrow doesn’t hold the same intellectual respect for its audience that a film like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy does, but it still telegraphs the numerous twists and triple-crosses with carefully doled-out foreshadowing rather than an excess of vigorous hand-waving. Not everything flows with balletic grace, though. A sub-plot involving the chief of staff for a U.S. Senator comes off as clunky and causes the film to sag near its midpoint, making poor use of the talent of an always-enjoyable Mary-Louise Parker. The final twists may surprise, yet they don’t shock.

But Red Sparrow isn’t a sophisticated British spy thriller, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. It piles on the blood, torture, and sex with an almost pulpy glee that refuses to let up. Jennifer Lawrence and Francis Lawrence, who also directed her in all three sequels to The Hunger Games, can count this as another successful partnership. While Red Sparrow might not be as clever as it thinks, it’s still clever enough to entertain.


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