Jennifer Lawrence Goes Femme Fatale in ‘Red Sparrow’

Red Sparrow” is a thriller that depends almost entirely on style. Even when the plot borders on the ridiculous, the viewer can sit back and enjoy the visual richness, décor and music. Unfortunately the movie runs a bit long for style to be enough. Though, the film has notable elements to it. Its an edgy, sultry turn for Jennifer Lawrence, who goes places we’ve never seen her try before. The movie is an attempt at going back to a time when sexuality and the thriller would be combined in daring, risqué films by directors like Brian De Palma. But De Palma at his best gripped the viewer with a great story fueled by sensuality. “Red Sparrow” instead tries to be erotic while trying to be a Tom Clancy-style spy yarn, lacking the sharpness of the former and popcorn energy of the latter.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a famous Moscow ballet dancer who suffers a brutal accident onstage. Unable to perform, Dominika and her mother now face eviction from their apartment, which is owned by the Bolshoi. Her enigmatic uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for Russian intelligence, offers her what appears to be a one-time gig: She is to lure a Russian oligarch to a luxuriant hotel room and seduce him to get information. But during the operation he’s assassinated by another Russian agent. Having seen too much Dominika is offered two options, either she dies or she can be trained as a “Sparrow” by the government. Off she goes to a secluded school where her and other young recruits are trained by Matron (Charlotte Rampling) in the ways of seduction (and apparently nothing else). After escaping a near-rape, Dominika is deemed ready to go out in the field. Her first key mission is to find a suspected American mole within Russian intelligence. Meanwhile CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is in Budapest, attempting to redeem himself after a botched operation in Moscow. Dominika will cross paths with him in order to try and find the mole, while Nash will try and use Dominika for the benefit of the CIA.

In terms of its attitude, “Red Sparrow” is a throwback to good old fashioned Cold War stereotypes. The story is set in the present yet feels very 1980s. Its design pretends the Soviet Union never collapsed, so red is a present, menacing color. Russian government officials are all draped in shadow, espousing big, James Bond-like talk or lusting after young prospects. When Matron begins training the Sparrows she proclaims that the West has fallen into decadent ruin, only Russia remains to protect civilization, or something. In one scene secret information is exchanged in floppy discs. The Americans are of course all clean-cut and moral, like the kind of CIA characters we used to get in movies like “The Hunt for Red October” or “Patriot Games.” What is missing is a more convincing, entertaining storyline.

Director Francis Lawrence, who directed the last three “Hunger Games” movies, gets lost here in his perfect compositions and atmospheric lighting. The opening scenes have much promise as a clandestine meeting between Nash and a Russian contact is intercut with visceral power as we see Dominika performing onstage to grandiose music. But the screenplay by Justin Haythe, based on a novel by former operative Jason Matthews, becomes too entangled in the somewhat crazy erotic aspects of the premise, never taking the time to combine them with a worthy narrative. What exactly is being planned, by whom and for what becomes hard to follow as the characters linger around hotel rooms and streets, smoking and giving each other serious stares. The film never even gives us at least the obligatory car chase scene through a European capitol.

Lawrence’s approach is instead to let the camera linger on Jennifer Lawrence’s body, especially in scenes of extreme violence which border on sheer exploitation, particularly the first seduction which shifts quickly to violent rape. The Sparrow training scenes are low-grade erotica as Matron orders pupils to undress because “your body belongs to the state.” The female Sparrows are made to perform sexual acts on command in front of the class. Oddly enough Lawrence never shows any of the male Sparrows having to surrender themselves during the proceedings. The one true effective scene in this section is when Dominika is made to give herself to a male Sparrow who assaulted her in the shower. She turns the tables on the man in a smart, psychologically wicked way that becomes a commentary on true desire versus wanting power. But Lawrence doesn’t really have the knack for shooting an erotic thriller. The film is very moody, without any gusto, and the sexual moments get off the rails in ways that come across as whacky as opposed to stylish. Consider an early sex scene in a locker room where Dominika beats down her cheating boyfriend and his lover with her walking cane. Another flaw is that Lawrence never actually brings to life the underworld of the Sparrows. We never actually see them being trained in counterespionage, survival techniques, or even the use of weapons. The idea is apparently that Russian espionage depends completely on sex.

What will generate much chatter is the performance by Jennifer Lawrence. Aside from some flaws in the accent, she does go to interesting places here different from what we’ve seen her do before. Even when the script makes little sense she manages to convey the presence of a cold, determined individual who hides her vulnerabilities. Unfortunately the character suffers because she has little to no chemistry with co-star Nash, who is written like a convenient tool thrown in for Dominika to “develop feelings” for someone. The inevitable moment where the two have sex is so random that we’re left as puzzled as the character himself when the moment ends. The best supporting character is a brief role by Mary-Louise Parker, who plays a drunk American selling secrets to the Russians. Jeremy Irons is also cool charisma (as always) playing a Russian general.

“Red Sparrow” is visually alluring but ultimately becomes a shallow exercise. We almost welcome the final shootout on a tarmac, because the plot at last moves along. Dominika is left in the same state as this movie, searching for actual meaning behind the gloss.

Red Sparrow” opens March 2 in theaters nationwide.