Jennifer Lawrence is tied to a chair, beaten and tortured. She is the victim of rape and attempted rape. She is forced to strip naked in private and in public. She is slashed, stabbed and has a gun put to her head.
Ostensibly, such graphic ordeals are intended to demonstrate the physical and psychological fortitude of her character, a Russian spy named Dominika Egorova. But ultimately, these shocking and violent sequences become repetitive and gratuitous, making “Red Sparrow” feel more like a cheap exercise in exploitation than a visceral tale of survival.
Surely there’s more to spycraft than knowing the perfect spot to caress on a target’s thigh, or how delicately to whisper into his ear. But this is about the extent of the training she receives. (Oh! She also learns how to pick locks.) Dominika is right when she complains that she’s been sent to “whore school” alongside other attractive and tough-minded young people who are being molded to serve Russia’s secret intelligence. What she endures is more than just degrading—it’s destructive. And as a solitary tool set, it wouldn’t seem to prepare her for the many dangers headed her way.
“Red Sparrow,” which Francis Lawrence directed from Justin Haythe’s script, is based on the novel by Jason Matthews. But it’s impossible to watch it without comparing it to last summer’s stylish and kinetic “Atomic Blonde,” another physically demanding espionage thriller starring Charlize Theron. That film truly was about female empowerment—about a woman using every inch of her body to achieve her goals while also having agency over her fate. The fact that Dominika is told early on that her “body belongs to the state”—which was the case long before she started training to be a spy—makes her the object of constant leering, and that male gaze gives “Red Sparrow” a skeevy vibe from which it never deviates.
Director Lawrence also worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) in the last three “Hunger Games” movies, so he’s familiar with putting his exceedingly capable star through the wringer. She’s certainly game for it all (despite her wavering accent.) But aside from some shocking bursts of violence, he directs “Red Sparrow” with a surprisingly dull sameness. That overall bland tone, coupled with the film’s unnecessarily long running time, makes this would-be thriller less than thrilling.
It begins with promise and verve, though, as we see Dominika at the height of her powers in her former life, performing as a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet. The great Ukrainian dancer Sergei Polunin plays her partner; sadly, he barely gets to show off his formidable abilities. But he is crucial to the on-stage accident that ends her career with a fall and a crack. (It’s one of many gory moments that’ll make you flinch and cringe in your seat.)
Dominika’s career-ending leg break also means the end of her ballet-sponsored housing and medical care that her ill mother needs. Right on cue, her uncle Vanya (yes, Matthias Schoenaerts really plays a character named Uncle Vanya) steps in with a proposal. He’s a high-ranking member of the Russian secret intelligence agency, and he has recognized cunning and scrappiness in her since she was a child. He thinks she can make herself useful to the state in order to protect her home and her mother.
That’s right. He sends her to whore school.
Charlotte Rampling, the cruel and emotionless leader of the training center (it’s actually called Sparrow School), teaches Dominika and her classmates how to manipulate people by seeking out their weaknesses, using their charms and becoming whomever they must to get the assignment done. Rampling’s character, known only as Matron, gives a speech to the class about how the West is weak, tearing itself apart with racial divisions and social media obsessions, and how it’s Russia’s time to step in and assert itself as the ultimate world power. This is about as close as “Red Sparrow” comes to addressing the renewed Cold War between Russia and the United States. (I guess a whole movie in which Jennifer Lawrence sits in a Moscow office building pumping out anti-Hillary Clinton Twitter bots would’ve been hard to market.)
There’s not nearly enough of Rampling, however. (Similarly, Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds help bolster the strong cast in small roles as top Russian officials.) That’s because Dominika soon gets her first assignment: She must travel to Budapest and cozy up to a CIA officer named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who’d been working in Moscow, and find out the identity of the mole who was his contact inside Russian intelligence.
Lawrence and Edgerton suffer from a woeful lack of chemistry together, a component that’s essential to determining whether the entire movie works. The way they dance around one other—flirting, feeling each other out—provides some intrigue and suspense at first. But they drop their facades far too quickly, and the ensuing romance has barely any spark. They never make us believe the sacrifices they’re willing to make for each other; we just have to go with it as the plot chugs along.
Thankfully, there’s Mary-Louise Parker, who provides a much-needed respite from this slog. She has a quick but significant supporting role as the chief of staff to a United States senator who’s too drunk to realize she’s not nearly as slick or savvy as she thinks she is. She finds herself in over her head while trying to sell secrets to the Russians and ends up getting squeezed in the midst of a power play between various double-crossing agents. It’s the film’s most suspenseful segment. And for one brief, glorious moment, she breathes life into a movie that never truly takes flight.