Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Russian Bolshoi Ballet dancer whose promising career is cut painfully short. An onstage injury redirects Dominika into a life of spying, as her uncle (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) enlists her in the Russian intelligence-sponsored “Sparrow” program. Dominika must endure living in a remote location, where she is trained to by a no-nonsense authority figure (played by Charlotte Rampling) to be a seductive and deadly servant for her country.
Lawrence is undoubtedly one of the most promising new talents in film, as her work in Winter’s Bone and a trio of David O. Russell films (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and Joy) demonstrates her intensity and charisma. But some of her recent choices suggest that her desire to stretch herself and seek out ambitious projects doesn’t always pay off. While Red Sparrow is arguably more audience accessible than the admirably bonkers mother! and a better acting showcase than Passengers (or any of the Hunger Games installments), it’s still an uneven work.
Lawrence’s grim, sexually frank vehicle succeeds in keeping its audience intrigued and lingering on the details. Where it fails is coming up with an ending that justifies the 140-minute running time. Movies like these thrive on big, last-minute reveals, but the conclusion here is more “Oh, okay, I guess that makes sense” than anything mind-blowing.
It’s refreshing to see a John Le Carre-style spy thriller for an adult audience that doesn’t need endless shoot-outs and car chases. But a big problem with Red Sparrow is that there’s no memorable set-piece or outstanding moment. Even the bloodiest scene in the movie, involving the use of a skin-grafting machine, goes by too quickly.
There’s no questioning the commitment Lawrence makes to this film, as she conveys Dominika’s cold exterior and anguished inner life. There are also several scenes in which her character is naked, beaten, nearly raped and performs the very-R-rated skills she learned during training. Needless to say, this isn’t for fans of Katniss Everdeen or Lawrence’s X-Men movies. In fact, it’s hard to say who this is for. Luc Besson’s 1991 La Femme Nikita remains the best of these types of thrillers and offers rousing action sequences, as well as a compelling journey, for its female protagonist.
The best things about Red Sparrow are James Newton Howard’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score and Jo Willems’ beautiful cinematography, which give this pulpy exercise the look and feel of a more prestige film. A distracting quality is Lawrence’s understated but still trying-too-hard Russian accent. To her credit, the last time an actress nailed that tricky accent was Michelle Pfeiffer in the 1990 The Russia House. Lawrence doesn’t embarrass herself but the accent is so cumbersome, I wouldn’t have minded her either dropping it or a change of location.
Aussie Joel Edgerton, playing the love interest CIA agent who pursues Dominika, does a masterful job with his American accent and brings a needed light touch. Jeremy Irons and Rampling, on the other hand, are too good to be appearing in movies like these.
Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) got his start making some iconic MTV music videos, like Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River, Britney Spears’ Slave 4 U and Aerosmith’s Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing. His film career so far includes the better-than-you-remember DC Comics action/horror Constantine and the Will Smith’s I Am Legend, which has a solid hour before falling apart. Francis Lawrence has the visual chops and his star is game for the punishing material, but he needed a stronger screenplay.