A sex-and-spycraft yarn built for Cold War 2.0 — despite displaying next to no awareness of current tech, arguably this cold war’s defining ingredient — Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow sometimes seems to target the sort of Jennifer Lawrence fan who feels the recent Mother! didn’t pay sufficient attention to the star’s lightly clothed curves. What would a spy flick be without the male gaze? Well, it’d be something like John Le Carre — which this film, despite its focus on the strategic acquisition of foreign assets, definitely is not. Striking a sometimes uneasy balance between trust-no-one espionage and sensationalism, Sparrow seems likely to attract a fairly large audience but leave few moviegoers fully satisfied.
Based on the novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews (a book whose depiction of spy-station dialogue inspired Langley’s own book review to rave, “This is how it sounds, this is how it is done”), Justin Haythe’s script tosses big chunks of the book out, despite the film’s epic length. Gone is the emphasis on its heroine’s synesthesia, in which she reads her targets’ personalities as if they were color-coded; gone is the nitty-gritty of evasive street work. And while the novel was so attentive to its characters’ diets that it ended every chapter with a recipe, the film has perhaps one shot of a character feeding herself, and it isn’t appetizing.
A pervy premise and top-flight cast yield a mixed-bag spy flick.
Instead, Haythe and Lawrence hone in on a (presumably fictional) “Sparrow” program, in which young and attractive recruits of the Russian intelligence service, the SVR, go to school solely to be trained in the ways of seduction. Here, school’s in session with a stern Charlotte Rampling educating both men and women. “Every human being is a puzzle of need,” she tells them, insisting that knowing how to fill that unseen need will enable an operative to extract secrets and favors from foreign targets.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova, a star ballerina whose career is destroyed by a gruesome onstage accident, gets sent to Sparrow School by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a handsy sleaze who ranks high in the SVR. What uncle would send his niece to such a camp? The question is asked several times here, but more puzzling is why Dominika would go. Long story short, she thinks she’s agreeing to a one-night stand of seduce-and-betray action so that Vanya will support her sick mother; when that night turns into an assassination, Vanya says she knows too much and will be killed if she doesn’t go full-time.
After her somewhat intriguing stint at school, where students are forced to become unsentimental about their bodies and do what they’re told with them (“Your body belongs to the state”), Dominika gets an assignment. Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) is a CIA man who had to flee Russia after he’s nearly caught meeting a high-level Russian intelligence officer feeding the Americans secrets. He’s in Budapest now, and Dominika is to go there, win his trust and learn the identity of his mole.
Dominika, who until this point has radiated the kind of better-than-this defiance one expects from a ballerina asked to screw gross guys for her country, now slides into survival mode — doing what is demanded of her, but clearly looking for the angles that might make her something like a free agent again. One is tempted to draw parallels between the character and Lawrence herself, who performs unimpeachably here but is better than the material.
Though she and Edgerton have adequate chemistry onscreen, the screenplay fumbles any heat it might have generated as the characters try to deceive and woo each other simultaneously. The cat’s out of the bag nearly from the start, but Dominika and Nate still have to do-si-do a bit before they can actually start working together against the Ruskies. Dominika gets into some trouble with her Hungarian roommate and the leering bureaucrat assigned to monitor her work, then contrives a way to solve her problems: She’ll intercept the chief of staff of an American senator, who has been planning to sell state secrets to Russia for a quarter-million dollars.
Mary-Louise Parker, as the American traitor, brings a welcome (and intoxicated) screw-’em-all attitude to her short sequence. But what the hell is up with those secrets? For reasons that are never hinted at, the information she’s selling comes on a stack of six 3.5-inch floppy discs. That’s right, kids: You can’t even get a MacBook with a DVD drive anymore, but the sexiest spies in the world are evidently toting physical-media hardware that was obsolete sometime in the last century. (For those who never had to use the things, those discs would all together hold under 9 megabytes of data. The Lyft iPhone app is well over 100 megs; presumably, America’s military satellite schematics are slightly more than that.)
Dominika and Nate enjoy something less than full success on this first assignment together, but in deference to the film’s producers (whose “please no spoilers” letter to critics suggests they think the film is more surprising than it is), let’s stop the synopsis here. It must be noted, though, that in a climactic action scene, the filmmakers require Dominika to do something very stupid and very implausible — not fun, spy-action implausible, but the head-smacking, “come on!” variety — so that a bad guy will live long enough to start a three-person stiletto battle.
The movie gets enough right (thanks largely to its top-shelf cast, which also includes Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds on the SVR side) that a blatant cheat like that is galling — especially since it arrives well after the pic has abandoned the prurience it used to get the raincoat crowd in the door. (Its themes and occasional ogling aside, this is not a very sexy film.) Given current geopolitical realities, we’re probably due for a big wave of Russophobic genre cinema. Red Sparrow helps get the ball rolling, but here’s hoping we see better before Putin & Co’s devastating use of social media makes all this one-on-one spycraft seem laughably quaint.
Production companies: Film Rites, Chernin Entertainment
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Cast: Jenifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Producers: Peter Chernin, Steve Zaillian, Jenno Topping, David Ready
Executive producers: Garrett Basch, Mary McLaglen
Director of photography: Jo Willems
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Costume designer: Trish Summerville
Editor: Alan Edward Bell
Composer: James Newton Howard
Casting directors: Denise Chamian, Zsolt Csutak
Rated R, 139 minutes