Most Hollywood movies these days tiptoe around international affairs, so careful are they to avoid offending foreign countries whose audiences might buy tickets. It’s refreshing, therefore, to see Red Sparrow indulge in some of that old-fashioned Russia baiting from days of yore, now that it’s back in fashion to hate those election-rigging, dictator-worshipping, homophobic sports cheats. This spy thriller has been marketed as a trashy exercise laden with sex à la Atomic Blonde, but this actually wants to be a slow-burning intellectual spy thriller à la Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as well. At the first, it fails, even though it gets Jennifer Lawrence and other actors naked. At the second, it succeeds better than I would have imagined.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi until she suffers a gruesome career-ending injury onstage. Needing to make herself useful to the Russian state before it takes away the doctors for her degenerative condition-suffering mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika applies to her uncle who’s a colonel in the spy service (Matthias Schoenaerts, made up to look like a handsomer version of Vladimir Putin, which I love). He sends her to have sex with a billionaire oligarch (Kristof Konrad), not telling her that he’s going to have an assassin kill the rich guy while he’s inside her. Having witnessed the wetworks up close, Dominika’s forced to go to what she calls “whore school,” an academy for agents who use their sexuality to extract information from people.
Small wonder that when she’s sicced on a CIA agent in Budapest (Joel Edgerton) who happens to be the movie’s only non-rapey male character, she tells him up front that she’s a spy who wants to betray her country for the Americans. Even if #MeToo has passed you by, you can still tell that if Russia’s men in charge would just show Dominika a shred of respect or give her the illusion that any of this was her idea, she might stay loyal. Having her finally achieve a level of autonomy is something that director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe want to pursue but fumble the execution of.