Red Sparrow

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  Red Sparrow

Prima ballerina for the Bolshoi ballet, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), is at her peak when a horrible accident during a performance ruins her career. While recovering, she is visited by her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high ranking government official, who offers her a chance for a different future as a “Red Sparrow.”

I knew nothing about this latest, fourth, collaboration between director Francis Lawrence and mega-star Jennifer Lawrence – the others being the last three of the four “Hunger Games” movies. Then, I saw “Red Sparrow” and I know little more now. This, I think, is because star-power of the femme Lawrence is more important than story.

Dominika, after her accident, lives a quiet life taking care of her invalid mother, Nina (Joely Richardson). But, since she can no longer dance, the ballet company stops paying her salary. Enter Uncle Ivan and an offer of redemption – join the secret Sparrow program and become a sex spy for Russian intelligence. Dominika realizes that she has few, if any, other options. Following her “sexpionage” training, she is assigned to go against….

Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is a CIA spook working in Budapest to run a high placed Russian double agent called Marble. He is also the target for Russian agent Diva (Domikia’s cover ID) to uncover the mole. That, I think, is the bare bones story synopsis. I say “I think” because of the muddled, confused adaptation of the Jason Matthews novel by Justin Haythe.

Well, the screenplay is a major problem but there is another problem, too. As I watched “Red Sparrow,” I realized that what could have been a solid thriller is, instead, merely a showcase for Lawrence by her muse, the other Lawrence directing her. What I came out with is a non-thrilling thriller that made me mark time until the 140 minute long (it seemed longer) “Sparrow” ended.

This is a shame since the supporting cast consists of a bevy of veteran actors capable of much more as their two-dimensional characters are overwhelmed by the director’s attention to his star instead of story. Ciaran Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Joely Richardson and Jeremy Irons are relegated to various cardboard cutout characters there to push forward the weak narrative and little more. Joel Edgerton is, simply, first a target for Diva, then a partner in deception that makes for a plot of sorts. Matthias Shoenaerts, for some reason, channels Vladimir Putin, even down to his strut. All in all, a waste of fine acting talent.

The novel (by the same name as the film) is by a former CIA operative and there may be some reality to the Russian sexpionage plotting against the West. But, the potential for in depth look into the dark world of East-West espionage is buried with a script that is more titillating than interesting. I give it a C-.

After Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) endures a career ending accident dancing for the Bolshoi, she's faced with caring for her invalid mother Nina (Joely Richardson) with the prospect of losing their Bolshoi supplied apartment hanging over her head.  Her Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts, "Bullhead," "A Bigger Splash"), a member of the SVR, offers to 'help,' supplying her with evidence about the truth behind that accident, then asking her to assist in a covert operation that renders her an inconvenient witness.  Vanya's backed Dominika into a corner where her only choices are death or becoming a honeypot for the State as a "Red Sparrow."

Jennifer Lawrence jumps into her first overtly sexual role with the director of her last three "Hunger Games" movies, Francis Lawrence, screenwriter Justin Haythe ("Revolutionary Road," "A Cure for Wellness") adapting 33 year CIA veteran Jason Matthews' book.  The film has a surprisingly feminist stance, Dominika's agenda artfully hidden until final moments, yet despite a few tense scenes, this thriller is surprisingly inert.  As Matthews' book was the first of a trilogy, perhaps the filmmakers are hoping for a franchise. Knowing Dominika's mind set, which we largely do not here given Lawrence's blank slate, would better enable audiences to invest in its protagonist in any future installments.

Dominika is trotted out by Vanya before her performance where she catches the appreciative eye of a wealthy Russian.  During the dance, her male partner lands on her leg, resulting in a hideous break.  After she's recovered sufficiently to walk with a cane, Vanya, who has an incestuous interest in his niece, slips her photos of that partner in flagrante with the female dancer who's replaced her.  Her retribution is brutal, further convincing Vanya of her potential.  When he asks her to lure that wealthy Russian into a hotel room, she successfully uses her wits to accomplish the mission, but Vanya's betrayed her, allowing her to be raped, the target murdered by hit man Matorin (Sebastian Hülk, "The White Ribbon," "Hanna") mid thrust.

At Sparrow School, where Dominika is appraised and trained by Matron (Charlotte Rampling), the young woman endures further abuse as she learns to use her sexuality to manipulate.  Meanwhile CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is stripped of his assignment in the U.S. after being outed during a Gorsky Park drop when he fires his weapon to allow his contact to escape.  But Nash has also noted the new Sparrow and is allowed to travel back to Moscow in hopes of flipping her.  But when Dominika makes her expected play, the two find something in each other they did not expect.

This romance doesn't exactly generate sparks, however, the main connection between the two Dominika's recognition of Nash's compassionate decency.  Far more entertaining is watching Stephanie Boucher (Mary-Louise Parker), chief of staff for a U.S. Senator, caught up in a game way above her head.  As Dominika's far more experienced roommate Marta, Thekla Reuten ("In Bruges") engenders more sympathy than our heroine. A grotesquely violent climax has nothing on Charlize Theron's single take ass-kicking in "Atomic Blonde."  "Red Sparrow" holds its trump card until the very end, then wallows in it.

Lawrence certainly looks the part, her Russian accent far more believable than the film's trailer would indicate, at least when she remembers to use it.  Yet there's really no one in this cast, which includes Bill Camp on the U.S. end and Ciarán Hinds and Jeremy Irons in the SVR, that stands out other than Parker.  "Red Sparrow's" U.S. representatives are inept, their Russian counterparts soulless and sadistic.  The film's subject matter is lurid, yet its sensibilities oddly chaste.  Locations and costume add flavor otherwise lacking.  "Red Sparrow" is one of those neither here nor there films, a quickly forgotten mediocrity.

Grade:  C+
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