Eventually, the cold and pitiless Red Sparrow is about a young Russian woman who becomes a spy and gets tangled up with a CIA operative running a counter-mission. It takes a while to get there, though, and when we do, it’s not the kind of espionage caper that’s “fun” or “has action” but rather the kind where the spies brood and pine a lot except when they’re torturing and/or having sex with one another.
Based on Jason Matthews’ novel, adapted by Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness), and directed by Francis Lawrence (the Hunger Games franchise), Red Sparrow offers Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) as we’ve never seen her before: nude and Russian. She plays Dominika, a Bolshoi ballerina whose career is ended by an injury, leading her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) — deputy director of Russia’s CIA equivalent, the SVR — to blackmail her into becoming a government asset. Dominika’s mother (Joely Richardson) is ill, you see, and without that Bolshoi support, she’ll have to go to a state-run hospital unless Dominika does Uncle Vanya’s bidding.
Is it icky for a man to coerce his niece into espionage? Oh, buddy, just wait. For this is not ordinary spy business but sexy spy business! Dominika is sent to a facility where she and other attractive young spy-lets are taught how to extract information from targets by seducing them — “whore school,” Dominika calls it, saving me the trouble. The rules are clear: If it will earn their trust, you will do ANYTHING your target wants you to do, no matter how gross it or he is. According to Whore Academy’s severe matron (Charlotte Rampling), “You must inure yourself to what you find repellant.” This is also good advice for the audience.
If Dominika receives any other spy training, it isn’t shown to us. The ability to have sex with strangers seems to be the main skill needed. She’s a natural at espionage, though, by which I mean she’s good at lying and, as seen in an early sequence, not afraid to beat someone brutally for wronging her. Her mission is to get close to CIA spook Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) and find out who’s been leaking intel to him from the SVR. But Nash’s mission is to get close to Dominika and try to turn her to the good side (or the American side anyway; it’s hard to tell).
There are a handful of intense moments and bone-crunching, gut-stabbing fisticuffs spread over the film’s 140 minutes. The various menacing men (also including Jeremy Irons as a Russian general) add creepiness, while Mary-Louise Parker adds brief levity as an American willing to sell secrets. Jennifer Lawrence continues to test her limits, taking on a role that requires frank nudity and unseemly behavior, all of which she handles well.
But the film lacks urgency. It gets bogged down in the soup of everyone’s mixed allegiances and internal conflicts, coming to life only periodically to deliver on its potential. The final twists and turns are just satisfying enough to make you wish the whole film had had that kind of energy.