Until recently, the Russian espionage thriller felt like an exercise from another era, a holdover from a time when international threats were less varied and fragmented. Then reality intervened, pulling Le Carré-like twists back to the realm of relevance.
Enter Red Sparrow, a densely plotted, lurid and rather satisfying spy spectacle whose greatest asset is a movie star showing us why she's a movie star. Jennifer Lawrence, playing a Russian ballerina turned seductress assassin, performs like a master chess player, dictating every action and manipulating our allegiances with a glance or a gesture of self-aware sexiness. She's better than the material, but she also gooses it up to another level.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a star dancer for the Bolshoi Ballet. Dominika's uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a slick operative for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, and he has no qualms about putting his niece in a compromising situation and then enlisting her in the government's cause. That means sending her to Sparrow school, where young Russians are taught to use seduction as a weapon. Or, as she bitterly tells Uncle Vanya, "You sent me to whore school."
The star is perfectly cast as a tough customer who can turn heads one moment and cut your face open the next. There's a whole lot of J-Law on display here, and part of the movie's thrill comes from watching Dominika wield her power and play various factions against each other, and wondering what exactly she's up to. She's always a step ahead, but the story keeps us in enough darkness to propel its mysteries and obscure her agendas.
Her assignment is to find a mole in the Russian government. That requires her to cozy up to a melancholy CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who has been cultivating said mole. Edgerton makes a convincing sad sack, a little pudgy and droopy-eyed and distracted by whatever is on his mind. In Dominika he sees a conflicted patriot who has been used by her mother country and could potentially be flipped.
Red Sparrow plays like smart pulp, unafraid of titillation but carefully plotted and visually alluring. Much of the film is shot in a sort of perpetual twilight, a haze of moral ambiguity accentuated by thick shadows. It doesn't skimp on sex, or on violence, two main ingredients of pulp. From the moment Dominika suffers an onstage fall early in the film, to the gruesome spectacle of a Russian operative who uses a skin grafting knife to elicit information, Red Sparrow is a brutal affair.
It's also stocked with a deep bench of acting talent that adds a jolt of personality to moments of potential tedium. On the Russian side, Schoenaerts is a smooth, polished symbol of Putin's Russia; Ciarán Hinds is his taciturn boss; and Charlotte Rampling is the ruthlessly kinky trainer of the Sparrows. For the Americans, Mary Louise Parker brings dark comic relief as a compromised, alcoholic Senate staffer, and Bill Camp is a gruff CIA opportunist. Then there's Jeremy Irons, who adds laconic gravitas to whatever he does.
Red Sparrow is based on a novel by Jason Matthews, a 33-year CIA veteran, and it has the texture of an exaggerated real-life spy yarn. It's a little too long, and some of the grislier moments (though certainly not all of them) feel extraneous. But there's almost always something to keep the eyes happy, be it a colorful bit performance or a crafty piece of editing. Beneath it all lies a twisty take on patriotism and its limitations, and the fragile membrane between the personal and the political. The Russians, it seems, are back in style, with new wrinkles that hold great promise for the espionage genre.
Red Sparrow (B+)
R (strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity). 139 mins. In wide release.