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Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, center left) goes to Sparrow School in the spy thriller Sparrow. Murray Close
In the new thriller based on Jason Matthews’ novel, the actress stars as a Russian rookie secret agent who’s more liable to use sex as a weapon than, say, a switchblade in her stiletto though the film is still plenty violent. Red Sparrow ( out of four; rated R; in theaters nationwide Friday) veers from its genre by focusing on methodical spycraft and juggling emotions; unlike Charlize Theron in last year’s Atomic Blonde, Lawrence is seducing people instead of kicking them in the face.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is a star ballerina in the Bolshoi whose career gets shelved after a horrific injury. To make ends meet and take care of her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika is recruited by her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a major figure in the Russian intelligence service. After a successful first assignment to woo an influential business leader, Vanya sends his niece to Sparrow School, a secretive place run by a stoic matron (Charlotte Rampling) that teaches young men and women to use their sexual wiles for espionage purposes.
While she’s getting trained, CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) tries to find a way back to Moscow after a botched mission involving his contact with a Russian mole. When Nate meets Dominika, they fall for each other and he sees a path to make her a double agent. She’s out mostly for survival, though, and the audience is left wondering about her and many of the characters’ true allegiances.
Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, left) and Nate (Joel Edgerton) fall for each other but the relationship gets complicated in Sparrow. Murray Close
With the exception of her Russian accent, which seems more like an underwhelming audition for a Boris and Natasha cartoon,
Lawrence fits the role like a new pair of pointe shoes. The chemistry with Edgerton isn’t great but Dominika by herself is a fascinating study, a woman who first uses her body to create exquisite art, later has it used by men, and then takes it back in a big way.
At nearly 2 hours, Red Sparrow is overlong for what it needs to be, yet still doesn’t spend enough time in Sparrow School, the most interesting aspect of the entire movie. At first, Dominika is taken off guard by weaponizing her sexuality, but in one nude scene opposite a male student in class, she becomes the dominant figure playing mind games and suddenly finds a physical power she never had before. It’s startlingly empowering instead of exploitative unfortunately, it’s also fleeting since she never gets the chance to showcase that same sort of tantalizing rawness again.
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Director Francis Lawrence’s twisty yarn on the whole is similarly frustrating. There’s so much good stuff, but it never jells in a satisfying way. senator (Mary Louise Parker) that’s tense and enjoyable, and the filmmaker creates a nice contrast of worlds in the beginning, intercutting shots of the gorgeous Bolshoi Ballet with a chilly twilight meetup in Gorky Park. Other times, Red Sparrow is a hard watch due to its brutality: Dominika is the subject of a cruel and relentless torture sequence, there’s a bone break so heinous that you’ll feel queasy afterward, and poor Nate gets the business end of a skin slicer.
With Cold War tensions rising again in real life, Red Sparrow feels of this time in a cool way,
but only Lawrence’s spy is memorable in this so so operation.