Screenwriter Justin Haythe ("Revolutionary Road," "A Cure for Wellness") adapts a novel by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, seemingly dumbing it down in the process. Still, "Red Sparrow" comes out of the gate looking like it's going to be a sleek, propulsive thriller. Director Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer Lawrence — no relation — in three of the four "Hunger Games" films, nails the film's opening sequence, which crosscuts a disastrous CIA handoff in Gorky Park with a disastrous ballet performance for the Bolshoi's prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Lawrence).
But a sinking feeling sets in as the plot pokes along. When Dominika loses her job at the ballet, she loses her means of providing for her ailing mother. Enter Dominika's uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a key player in the SVR, or Russian intelligence. Knowing he has his beautiful niece right where he wants her, he recruits her to enroll in State School 4 or, as Dominka will come to call it, "whore school." There, she learns the not-so-fine arts of seduction and manipulation, to be used to entrap pivotal players in the spy game. When the SVR targets CIA officer Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), Dominika hops out of the frying pan (Charlotte Rampling's teacher/dominatrix) and into the fire of active spying.
After that trashy but at least mildly interesting setup, "Red Sparrow" becomes a long slog for the rest of its 139-minute run time. Had this been a John Le Carre-level deep dive into the fascinating characters and details and politics of spycraft, the lack of action wouldn't be vexing. But aside from the nasty, brutish and short violence of a climactic showdown, the plot consists of mostly numb-looking mannequins quietly telling each other what to do (Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds keep popping up as a Russian general and colonel, respectively), with the drama not raising much above unnecessary statements like "I just want my mother to be safe."
Cinematographer Jo Willems channels Jeff Cronenweth for a David Fincher-y look, while the score by James Newton Howard taps into Herrman-esque strings, but it all just makes Francis Lawrence seem like he went shopping for mood to shore up a dull story. The mousetrap mechanics of the plot offer some mild pleasure when the final pieces click into place — or is that just the rush of impending freedom from the theater? As Hollywood begins to turn corners for those who aren't white males, "Red Sparrow" leaves its deepest impression by being a guy's fantasy of an empowered woman's story. She's smart! She's capable! She's sexy! She's nude! She's degraded! Wait, oh right. Um, no one's going to push her around! Well, okay, a little. Alright, a lot. But she'll make the most of it! You're welcome, gals.
Rated R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity. Two hours, 19 minutes.
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