Communism’s dirty spies revealed in the return-of-the-Cold War film ‘Red Sparrow’

R | 2h 19min | Mystery, Thriller | 2 March 2018 (USA)

“Red Sparrow” captures attention for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a star vehicle that showcases Jennifer Lawrence, and let’s face it—J-Law’s always interesting. Secondly, the story reveals a particularly vile weapon in the arsenal of a Russia for whom the Cold War never ended, and whose communist ghost seeks reincarnation.

Jennifer Lawrence as a seductive Russian spy in 20th Century Fox’s “Red Sparrow.” (Murray Close/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

Red sparrows are gorgeous Russian spies, trained to seduce information from unsuspecting CIA agents and movers/shakers of democratic nations. They’re licensed to kill.

Of course, the “honey trap” spy mode has existed since the advent of spying, but seeing the soulless, communist version of it can provide viewers with a few more nails for the communism-killed-100-million-people coffin.

Born Lethal

Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) is the Bolshoi Ballet’s prima ballerina. Unfortunately, her male dance partner somehow manages to land on her leg in the middle of a performance. Snap, crackle, pop. Not Rice Krispies. There goes the vaunted artistic career.

When she discovers it was no accident, she goes after her Tonya-Harding-like, up-and-coming rival (lover of said dance partner, naturally) with a golf club. In a sauna. Actually the partner’s in there too. Gives new meaning to the mob term “to whack.”

Now Dominika’s out of job, in danger of losing her government-funded apartment, and desperately needs money to take care of her ailing mom (Joely Richardson). What to do? Turns out, Dominika’s subtle, wicked Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the deputy director of the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation (SVR). As the CIA operates outside the US, so does the SVR operate outside the Russian Federation.

Uncle Ivan informs Dominika that her teeing-off on Sonya (Sonya=Tonya?) only managed to break Sonya’s jaw. But he’s a bit of a talent scout for the kind of killer instinct Dominika’s displayed and lures her into doing a one-off job for him.

Jennifer Lawrence as a seductive Russian spy in 20th Century Fox’s “Red Sparrow.” (Murray Close/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

All she’s got to do is one little thing: wear a nice red dress, sit at a bar, let herself get invited up to an official’s hotel room (an official who’s seen her dance and who’s under suspicion of treason) and switch out his cellphone when he’s not looking. Do this one little thing for Uncle Ivan, and mommy gets medical care.

Of course it’s not that simple. She unwittingly sets the stage for a particularly gruesome assassination (and assault), and oops—now she’s a witness. Whereupon Ivan pulls a checkmate move on his nubile niece: She can be a loose end that needs tying up, or go to spy school and learn how to use her body as an espionage weapon.

Honeypot 101

Spy training. Right. Off she goes to the ghastly State School 4, a co-ed “Kama Sutra” academy for spies where the youthful beauties practice target shooting, lock picking, and seduction as a martial art. Head school mistress (Charlotte Rampling) presides. It’s a good setting for a horror film.

Jennifer Lawrence as a seductive Russian spy, learning lock picking, in 20th Century Fox’s “Red Sparrow.” (Murray Close/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

There follows a test of wills between Rampling’s instructor and J-Law’s unwilling student, who manages to outwit the head matron’s unsavory “assignments” while managing (barely) to stay within the parameters of what’s allowed, in order to avoid getting booted from the program.

(L—R) Charlotte Rampling and Jennifer Lawrence star in “Red Sparrow.” (Murray Close/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

Called Up Early

Uncle Ivan’s got an assignment for her before she even graduates: she needs to get out in the field and get involved with one Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative stationed in Budapest who’s recently contacted a mole in the Russian intelligence community.

She’s supposed to cozy up to Nash and, sooner than later, ferret out the mole’s identity. However, per the occupational hazard of this particular profession, things go a little sideways: Dominika starts developing feelings. Or so it would appear. That’s her job, after all, to appear to develop feelings.

Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton in 20th Century Fox’s “Red Sparrow.” (Murray Close/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

Uncle Ivan’s convinced she’s up to the task, and Nash and his team think they can eventually turn her into a double agent. Meanwhile Dominika has a mind of her own. And the only one who ultimately recognizes the extent of her genius-level devious talent is Jeremy Iron’s character, as top-level SVR brass.

Convoluted and Brutal

Two problems with this flick: One, you’re not going to be able to keep track of the endless double-crossing; two, how does a world-famous Bolshoi ballerina suddenly morph into an undetectable, untraceable, invisible Russian spook? Sure, nobody’ll notice that. The only believable disappearing act here is Lawrence herself becoming a tough Slavic spy. Good accent. It’s the same toughness she introduced to the world as a poverty-stricken Tennessee mountain girl in her break-out film “Winter’s Bone.”

Jennifer Lawrence stars in “Red Sparrow.” (Murray Close/20th Century Fox Film Corporation)

If the film’s intent is to reveal that real spy work, and especially sparrow trade craft, isn’t the romanticized James Bondian foolishness we enjoy reveling in, and Walter Mitty-type fantasizing about, it does rather a good job of that. It’s what I mentioned at the outset: If you want to get a sense of the corrupt underbelly of old-school communist espionage, see this film.

The only fun to be had here, though, is Mary-Louise Parker’s snicker-engendering, boozy American official selling her treasonous soul by selling satellite defense system codes to Dominika, in London.

The main problem with the film is the assault-horror and straight-up torture Dominika is required to deal with as a sparrow. The violence is gratuitous, and the movie’s way too long for that.

Lawrence herself can actually handle all this without appearing demeaned, but one wonders why the director would require these extremes of her, and, ultimately, why she’d choose to do this film. Because J-Law’s got a lot of little kid fans from “The Hunger Games” who really ought not to be seeing this film.

‘Red Sparrow’
Director: Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Marie-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons
Running Time: 2 hours, 19 minutes.
Rated: R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language, and some graphic nudity
Release Date: Friday, March 2, 2018
Rated 2.5 stars out of 5