By Karen Gordon
A Cold War-style spy story set in the Putin era, Red Sparrow has the outward appearance of a sure thing.
It has a bona fide A-list star in Jennifer Lawrence and top-flight support from Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Joely Richardson and Mary-Louise Parker.
It’s based on an acclaimed, bestselling novel by ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews. It’s directed by Francis Lawrence, who made the final three Hunger Games movies and knows his way around J-Law’s action mode.
But Red Sparrow is a reminder that even with the right pieces in place, a movie is a fragile thing. The final product bounces from gratuitously nasty to, for the most part, just plain dull.
In this boilerplate spy movie, Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a beautiful prima ballerina with the Bolshoi. The status gives her the means to take care of her infirm mother, but it also puts her in the headlights of greedy, lascivious powerful men.
Dominika is cautious, aware of the careful line she must walk to keep her from becoming a sexual trophy for the powerful. So, when she is betrayed by her dance partner - who trips her causing her to break her leg during a performance - her career and her life as she knew it, is over. The ballet will soon stop paying her, and will evict her and her mother from their apartment and into an uncertain future.
But Dominika has connections of a sort. Her uncle (Matthias Scoenaerts), a high ranking intelligence officer, knows the value of his niece’s looks and status. And he offers her a deal. Work for the intelligence service and keep all the benefits of home. Or pass and see her mother sent to a rat-infested state-run home. Of course, it’s a devil’s bargain. Her uncle sends her to become a Red Sparrow, spies trained to use their sexuality as their principal weapon. Or as the horrified and once again betrayed Dominika calls it, “whore’s school.”
In a parallel storyline, Joel Edgerton plays the neatly named Nate Nash, an American CIA operative in Moscow. He’s the contact for a mole in the upper echelons of the Russian Intelligence organization.
The two are doing one of those exchanges of information in a public place when the police pull up. To distract them, Nash creates a diversion so his informant can escape. But it blows Nash’s cover, such that he has to leave the country. Did Russia’s intelligence agency know there was a high ranking mole before this? Hard to say. But they do now. And since Nash has blown his cover, he has to protect his informant from afar, while his two superiors constantly tell him what an idiot he is.
Idiot or no, Nash is able to tune out his superiors and carry on.
In the meantime, Dominika only wishes she could tune out her superiors. It’s a match made in spy heaven. And of course these two crazy kids are destined to meet cute. But will it be spy-vs-spy, spy-in-love-with-spy, or spy-using-spy?
Cliches abound. All the women are groomed to the nines, but you know the Russian women are serious because they wear their hair tightly pulled back. Charlotte Rampling’s Red Sparrow school mistress dispenses lessons in the sexual arts with frosty cruelty, while wearing an ill-fitting grey suit and ugly shoes that she seems to have been wearing since the Cold War. Austin Powers' Frau Farbissina had a better wardrobe.
Jeremy Irons, one of the top intelligence officers seems to be constantly stirring a cup of tea. Lawrence and her mother seem to always be eating soup, (borscht anyone)?.
The Russian characters all speak to each other in English with Russian accents that seem to come and go from scene to scene. After a while, it becomes a distraction and throwing in a scene in Russian with subtitles underlines the strangeness of the whole thing.
As for the action, the movie keeps the intensity up, but to no obvious end. Sure, a good spy movie relies on the old bait-and-switch, mixed with misdirection. But Red Sparrow has so many moving parts, it’s mind numbing at times. Some of the turns seem unmotivated and more about shocking us with cruelty or gruesome and gratuitous torture scenes. It’s a break from the numbing tedium, but not necessarily a welcome one.
On the plus side, Mary-Louise Parker, plays a heavily alcoholic American government employee who is happy to compromise herself for some cool Russian cash. Even in a stupor, she’s the most alive character in this murky spy film.
Red Sparrow. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton and Charlotte Rampling. Opens Thursday, March 1.