There are essentially three movies unfolding side by side in the violent, sex-soaked, hard-R spy melodrama “Red Sparrow.” That’s probably too many, but there are moments of campy excess that make it a semi-worthwhile guilty pleasure.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a Bolshoi-level ballet star who turns secret agent and seductress after a career-ending stage mishap threatens to cancel her occupancy in a Russian Federation-funded apartment and her mother’s long-term medical treatment. She is manipulated into the government’s international spy and Kompromat sex agency by her uncle Vanya. (Yes, Anton Chekhov fans, that grinding noise is the great playwright spinning in his Moscow grave.)
Played by the fine Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, Vanya is a top director of the security bureau who strikingly resembles Vladimir Putin if he were taller, younger and handsomer. At the outset, the sinister Vanya shows Dominika that he holds his late brother’s girl deep in his heart — at a level that’s uncomfortably submerged, as anyone paying attention will suspect early on.
A second story line follows Dominika’s assignment for the government, which sends her to its training academy for come-hither intelligence operatives. She is weaponized by Matron (Charlotte Rampling being cold and cruel) through sessions teaching how to undress in class — the film turns lengthy attention to Lawrence’s first screen nudity — and manipulate sexual power.
After determining that she can perform an irresistible hoochie koo and resist torture (this school has all sorts of challenging pop quizzes), the state puts her in action, either to swipe a mark’s cellphone or distract him with her beauty until an assassin can sneak a razor wire garrote around his neck. She’s painfully interrogated to prove her loyalty to the spy corps in scene after scene, and she doesn’t fight back physically. Does she have another form of retaliation in mind?
Having won her supervisors’ trust, Dominika’s main mission is to locate and eliminate a mole in service of the West. Traveling to Budapest, she arranges repeated chance meetings with CIA field agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is smart enough to recognize a ravishing Russian spy. Her man-magnet works on him all the same, and he views her as a source that can be turned to serve American interests.
The story has aimed for a keep-them-guessing atmosphere throughout, so we proceed wondering whether East, West, romantically inclined Nash, semi-incestuous Vanya or Dominika’s personal agenda will win the day. Unless we’ve lost interest, which seems likely.
Director Francis Lawrence guided his star through three “Hunger Games” movies, getting a level of polished performance uncommon in action fantasy franchises. Here, the usually expressive Lawrence plays a poker-faced, ice-in-the-blood Slav who keeps her feelings as vague and toneless as possible.
That may be her interpretation of the character, or it could reflect a lack of enthusiasm for a film that never becomes the classy, grown-up, paranoid thriller it hopes to be. While it’s more porno-violent than most Cold War dramas, the slack pace and seen-it-before procedural details bleach whatever emotional tone might draw us in. Lawrence and Edgerton don’t set the screen afire individually, and when their characters are placed together in hopes of igniting sexual chemistry, it’s hard to feel more than spirit-draining disappointment.
Yet, amid the extra-bloody, star-stripping excess, there are moments of over-the-top madness that stand out. You have to go back to Faye Dunaway screaming “No more wire hangers!” as Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest” to get a line reading like Lawrence’s “You sent me to whore school!” And Rampling’s banal Matron is a figure of evil professionalism, a competent, qualified, licensed sadist who views brainwashing her students as a routine obligation more than a turn-on.
But it’s Mary-Louise Parker’s minor role as an alcoholic American political assistant dragged into the mess that gives the film five minutes of tipsy bliss. Her goofy barroom entry, looped response to all the plots and betrayals and her catapult-like exit plays like one big wink at the audience. If everyone else involved admitted how silly it all is, “Red Sparrow” would be a much improved movie.