'Red Sparrow' Review: Jennifer Lawrence Plays Brutal and Beguiling Spy Games

Jennifer Lawrence, Red Sparrow
20th Century Fox

The actor reteams with her 'Hunger Games' director, Francis Lawrence, for an intense, adult espionage thriller.

I imagine a number of people expect Red Sparrow will be Atomic Blonde, but with Jennifer Lawrence donning those fringed, blonde bangs. Or maybe they think it will be a preview for Marvel's upcoming Black Widow movie, as Widow's comic book origins also deal in ballet and Russian espionage. Alas, it isn't either -- which is not a bad thing, not at all.

Unlike Charlize Theron's Cold War spy games, which were packed to the gills with pulpy action scenes set to campy pop tunes, Red Sparrow is sparse and solemn and understated. (And I wouldn't recommend a trip to the concession stand, as your stomach will turn too many times to enjoy much popcorn.) Based on the novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews and directed by Francis Lawrence, of the final three Hunger Games films, this is more so Tinker Tailor Soldier Sparrow, and it takes all of this very seriously, down to (Jennifer) Lawrence's Russian accent that I've been obsessed with since the first time I heard her murmur "Gud morneeng, muhmuh" in a trailer.

Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet. When an accident ends her dance career, she is coerced into taking on some dirty work from her uncle, a high-ranking intelligence officer (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), in exchange for continued medical care for her mama. The work ends up being dirtier than Dominika expects -- she lures a politician to a hotel room where he is assassinated -- and she is given the lose-lose choice of being killed or becoming a government operative known as a "sparrow."

Opting for the latter, Dominika is shipped off to a remote academy that specializes in seduction, where a hard-nosed Soviet madam teaches her "pupils" how to dissociate from their bodies and perform oral sex under any circumstances. Or, as Dominika puts it, "You sent me to whore school!" (Marvel would never.)

This is not a sexy movie, though, as much as it's been called that. There is sex, yes, and nudity, which has been much-discussed during Lawrence's press tour. (She says the nude scenes "empowered" her.) For as much as the plot hinges on the art of titillation, I never found any of the explicit bits all that titillating, or, for what it's worth, too exploitative. (In terms of the sexual politics of the movie, some certainly verge on problematic, most notably that Dominika's arc could be written off as that trope of a female character needing to be raped in order to become fully empowered. It's a rote narrative that could have been excised from the movie without losing much.)

No, the sex isn't particularly explicit, but the violence is. The broader framework of Red Sparrow revolves around a mole within the Russian government who is passing off state secrets to the Americans by way of CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Thus, Dominika's mission is to seduce Nash, gain his trust and get him to reveal the name of the mole. As spy flicks are wont to do, that inevitably leads to betrayal and double crossings and torture. And, oh, how this film loves reveling in its brutal disfigurement of the body, from a moment when Dominika's ballet career ends -- a bone-crunching sucker punch capping off a beautifully choreographed sequence -- which made me audibly gasp in the theater, to a sick, grisly bit involving a skin grafter that is so disgusting I thought I might vomit. That Lawrence shot this movie and mother! within a six-ish month span is...well, she deserves a spa day.

Considering the entire movie revolves around her, you need someone like Lawrence, commanding as ever, at the center. This is a different sort of role for the actor, who we're accustomed to being so open onscreen -- a well of human emotion that is either spilling over or contained just beneath the surface, not to say anything of how personable she is off-screen -- but as Dominika, she's required to keep the audience at arm's length, adopting the steely disposition of a woman who must wear many masks in order to survive. And still, Lawrence allows brief windows of vulnerability, of warmth. It's an arresting, absorbing performance, slips in that accent be dammed, and everyone else orbits her. Edgerton is fine here, square-jawed and somewhat bland, while Charlotte Rampling steals scenes as the ferociously severe head of the Sparrow initiative, and Mary-Louise Parker pops up for a bonkers subplot about a boozy U.S. chief of staff.

Red Sparrow is a relatively simple slow burner that ultimately delivers the intrigue it promises, unfolding not in so many twists and turns that the plot becomes incomprehensible, but in the psychological thrill of watching a spy caught between warring factions and never knowing exactly where her loyalties lie -- until you do. Upon sitting down in the theater, we were informed that the film runs a (potentially ungodly) two hours and 19 minutes long. It never felt it, though, and when the credits rolled, I was game for more. And wouldn't you know? If Lawrence is looking for a new franchise, there are two more novels in this series.