Director Francis Lawrence has never been one to reinvent the wheel. All seven of his feature length films have been adaptations of some sort, each workmanlike at best. When Lawrence took over The Hunger Games franchise, he brought a slightly more mature approach to the teen series, making the series a bit more sophisticated with moments of surprising intensity and politically charged issues. With his first non-Hunger Games film in six years, Lawrence makes his most adult film thus far with Red Sparrow, an occasionally shocking spy thriller that again, doesn’t revamp the genre, but brings enough ideas to keep the film thoroughly entertaining.
Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika, a ballerina whose career is ruined after her dance partner lands on her leg in the middle of a performance. Months after her leg has mostly healed, she received a visit from her uncle Ivan (Mattias Schoenaerts, looking like Hollywood Putin), a major player in Russian Intelligence who convinces her to seduce a corrupt businessman. Everything she’s trained for is now in vain, and her sick mother (Joely Richardson) needs healthcare that Dominika can no longer pay for.
Backed into a corner, she agrees to her uncle’s plans and when things go to his liking, he throws Dominika deeper into the world of espionage. After training at what Dominika calls a “whore school” for seduction – led by Charlotte Rampling – she is tasked with following CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who knows the identity of a mole in the Russian government.
Of course Nate and Dominika fall for each other, and of course that leads to all sorts of uncertainty of who is on what side. Edgerton and Lawrence are strong together, but that has more to do with their performances than the script by Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road, A Cure for Wellness) that doesn’t do them any favors in the romance department. Lawrence and Edgerton and both quite good, especially Lawrence, who often has focus her hatred inward. Lawrence’s work in The Hunger Games seems to have trained her well for this film, where her duplicitous nature towards the government that she is working for seems like it’s lifted from that series, albeit with much more sex and violence.
Red Sparrow’s strength is in its ability to surprise through extremes, rather than through the twists of the story. From the moment that Dominika has her leg crushed on stage, Red Sparrow sporadically shocks whenever the story begins to lull too much, always finding a new way to reinvigorate the story. The “whore school” sequence is aggressively dark, even for the usual spy thriller, asking young Russian agents to give their entire bodies for the cause. Every moment in this segment is deeply unsettling and each scene is filled with an uncertainty.
Red Sparrow is great at knowing when its story needs a shot of much-needed adrenaline, and doles them out with precision. A brutal assassin makes several appearances, becoming more disturbing each time he appears on screen. In the film’s only real comedic touch, Red Sparrow introduces Mary-Louise Parker as a senator looking to sell information, but by making her drunk throughout the exchange lightens the tension of the film briefly, while also gently twisting this scenario that has been seen in countless other films.
Yet Red Sparrow doesn’t know when to cut and run, as the almost 2 1/2 hour runtime is far too excessive. Still, those nice twists to the formula, and Lawrence’s commanding performance almost make that time fly by. Red Sparrow’s often sadistic and bleak story is a welcome surprise for the spy genre, a darker thriller than audiences are used to, with a solid ability to bewilder throughout.