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.
The film is adapted from Jason Matthews’ novel, and Haythe does a decent job of condensing the spy plot, writing a new ending that’s imperfect but an improvement on the book’s. (The filmmakers do away with the strangest part of the novel: the recipes that end each chapter.) Dominika’s seduction of the oligarch strikes the right tone: cold, unerotic, creepy as hell. Unlike the novel, the movie plays with some skill regarding where Dominika’s loyalties truly lie — she goes back to her masters in Moscow and tells them she’s working the American as a triple agent. This culminates in a well-done violent confrontation in Dominika’s Budapest apartment, where a Russian killer (Sebastian Hülk) gets hold of the CIA guy with a garrote. The lead role might have been better suited to an actress like Alicia Vikander who knows how to carry herself like a ballerina, but Jennifer Lawrence holds up well as a woman looking for a way out of a tight spot created by men, and whatever feminist power this movie has comes from her.
Still, that final plot twist turns the movie into a steel trap, and I think a steel trap should take 143 minutes to close. Surely we don’t need so much of whore school, even if Charlotte Rampling is presiding over it, or so much time spent midway through when Dominika is tortured by the Russians on suspicion of treason. The plentiful running time should give time for supporting characters, but the only one that pops is Mary-Louise Parker as an alcoholic gay American traitor, giving the movie some sorely missing looseness and fun.
Another place that could have been pruned is the ballet sequence early leading up to Dominika’s injury, though (balletomanes take note) it was choreographed by Justin Peck and danced by Isabella Boylston, with CGI subbing in Lawrence’s face. The film is sumptuously photographed (with Prague locations standing in for Moscow), and composer James Newton Howard does his best Rachmaninov impression. As a vehicle for its lead actress, it’s satisfactory, but no more.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Justin Haythe, based on Jason Matthews’ novel. Rated R.