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Jennifer Lawrence
Jennifer Lawrence
20th Century Fox
 140 Minutes
Directed byFrancis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton 
Red Sparrow

At first glance, it would seem that the new Francis Lawrence spy thriller Red Sparrow is merely another version of last summer’s Atomic Blonde with Jennifer Lawrence stepping in for Charlize Theron and one exceedingly complicated espionage plot taking the place of another. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Atomic Blonde, while enjoyable, was a campy exercise in excess, whose nearly incomprehensible plot was merely an excuse to allow Theron to slug it out with dozens of bad guys. Red Sparrow, on the other hand, is a throwback, but not to Atomic Blonde, but rather to the John Le Carre style of spy thriller like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, it which a complex plot reflected the complex politics and conflicted loyalties of the actual Cold War era. Red Sparrow isn’t in the same league with Spy, but it’s a movie whose complexities only gradually reveal themselves amidst enormous amounts of misdirection.


Red Sparrow is based on a novel of the same name by a 30-year CIA veteran agent, Jason Matthews, who stuffed his massive novel full of detail about the nuts and bolts of espionage work. For the most part, Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) and screenwriter Justin Haythe are more interested in the big picture. In this case, the biggest part of the picture is former Bolshoi prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), whose career ends abruptly when her leg is shattered in an onstage mishap. Faced with the loss of all the benefits that go with working for the Bolshoi, including medical treatment for her sick mother (Joely Richardson), Dominka agrees to help her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking very much like a younger Vladimir Putin), a Russian intelligence officer. Unfortunately, Domenika learns a bit too late that her assignment to seduce a politician is really a ruse to distract him with her body while Ivan’s agents murder the man.


Ivan then offers Domenika a choice. Either she will be killed as a witness to the murder or she can go to a special institute and be trained as a Sparrow, an attractive agent who uses his or her body as an integral part of the current mission. Not surprisingly, Domenika opts for survival and, after a training regimen that includes being required to perform a variety of crude sexual acts with some of her fellow trainees, she is sent on her first mission to Budapest. There, she is assigned to meet and gain the confidence of an American CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Nash had been working with a mole inside Russian intelligence, and Domenika’s assignment is to gain Nash’s confidence so he will reveal the identity of the mole. After Domenika meets Nash and begins to gain his confidence, he in turn tries to recruit her into working for the CIA.


Perhaps as a byproduct of the perceived similarity between Red Sparrow and Atomic Blonde, some might guess that Sparrow turns into an updated version of exploitation trash films like Ilse, She Wolf of the SS. But despite the presence of Charlotte Rampling as the commander of the Sparrow School and Domenika’s trainer, it gradually becomes clear that Domenika has learned the lessons from her Sparrow School training all too well. At the school, she is taught that her body belongs to the State, and, out in the world, she uses it as a weapon, but for what end, the movie takes its time in revealing.


After a while, Red Sparrow becomes a massive guessing game, between the film makers and the audience as well as between Domenika and the CIA on the one hand and her uncle Ivan and his superiors in Russian intelligence (Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds) on the other. Jennifer Lawrence shields her emotions well; even when subjected to lie detector testing or far more brutal methods of interrogation, she reveals virtually nothing. But what she does reveal, to the audience at least, is that she is rapidly becoming as good at the espionage game as her far more experienced male opponents, and the film becomes a massive, multi-layered duel of wits that only clicks into place in the final five minutes.


Along the way, there is a great deal of violence in Red Sparrow, some of it excessively brutal and sexual in nature. This is not a movie in which Jennifer Lawrence gets to display martial arts prowess in dispatching opponents as Charlize Theron did in Atomic Blonde. Instead, most of the violence is rape or attempted rape, brutal assault, and outright torture, generally on bound or otherwise helpless victims. Red Sparrow is not a pleasant movie to sit through and director Lawrence takes his time in letting each gruesome scene play out. Indeed, perhaps the only real complaint I had with the movie was that, at 140 minutes, Lawrence went too far in adopting a deliberate pace. Once the movie is seen in retrospect, however (Red Sparrow is a film that merits a second viewing to see just how all the tricks and twists are set up), almost every scene in the movie serves a purpose.


Between the time filming began on Red Sparrow and now, there has been a sea change in Hollywood in the treatment of sexual abuse and harassment, and this movie touches on some sore points. Of course, Domenika suffers at the hands of her male superiors (almost every man in the movie, with the exception of Nash, is somewhat of a sleaze). But she manages to give as well as she gets, if not physically, then mentally in what becomes a very complex chess game. But are the scenes of a nude Jennifer Lawrence confronted by a fully clothed male actor and other scenes of out-and-out torture necessary or just another level of Hollywood exploitative sleaze that cruder versions of movies like Red Sparrow have been showcasing for decades. In my view (and that of both Jennifer and Francis Lawrence), the graphic content is needed or, at the least, appropriate to show just how down and dirty Domenika has to get in order to have a chance to prevail.


Red Sparrow isn’t a pleasant film to sit through and it’s an emotionally cold film as well for the most part, but, even at its current length, it’s a fascinating one, and Francis Lawrence ties the loose ends together quite well at the end so audiences can see what they missed the first time around. There are no hidden messages here, just slick entertainment disguised somewhat by the considerable amounts of sex and violence that are pervasive throughout the movie. It goes without saying that Red Sparrow is not a movie for everyone’s tastes, but for those who have sufficient tolerance for the graphic content, it will undoubtedly be one of the best thrillers of the year.

In this scene, Jennifer Lawrence flirts with Joel Edgerton.

Read other reviews of Red Sparrow: 

Red Sparrow (2018) on IMDb