The reheated Cold War thriller “Red Sparrow” casts Jennifer Lawrence as an injured Russian ballerina who is forced into a second career as a spy, trained to use her body and skills to seduce the enemy into giving up their secrets.
It’s a perfect role for Lawrence, because it compels the exquisitely talented actress to use her body and skills to seduce the viewers into thinking they are watching a more interesting movie than this one.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, whose career as a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi comes crashing down when her dance partner lands on her leg and fractures it. With her mother Nina (Joely Richardson) in need of medical care, Dominika is desperate for a new line of work.
Enter her uncle, Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), the deputy director of Russia’s spy agency, with a proposition: Do one job for him, seducing a possibly traitorous official and switching the guy’s cellphone, and he’ll see that Nina gets the doctors she needs. But the job turns out to be an assassination, with Dominika as an inconvenient witness. Ivan gives his niece a new choice: Be killed, or join the training for the Sparrows, Russia’s seductive spy squad.
After a training regimen heavy on brutal sexuality, overseen by the stern Matron (Charlotte Rampling), Dominika is sent into the field on her first assignment. Her target is Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent who recently made contact with a mole within the Russian intelligence apparatus. Her mission is to get close to Nash, by any means necessary, and get the name of the mole. However, the mission gets complicated when Dominika starts falling for Nash — though that could be a bluff, all part of the Sparrows training.
With her cherubic face framed by forehead-hiding bangs, and her figure regularly flaunted in the Russian version of the Victoria’s Secret catalog, Lawrence has the effect of distracting all men — onscreen or in the audience — from Dominika’s brains, which are engaged in a pitched battle to work the Russians and Americans against each other and allow her to come out unscathed.
Alas, director Francis Lawrence, who has worked with his namesake star on three “Hunger Games” movies, does right by her but has a mess to contend with everywhere else. The script by Justin Haythe (“A Cure For Wellness”), adapting ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews’ novel, is a drab slice of LeCarré-light, only occasionally punctuated with joyless sexual content and nasty torture sequences.
It doesn’t help that Lawrence has more chemistry with the Belgian hunk Schoenaerts, who plays her uncle, than the Australian actor Edgerton. Nor does it help that neither man is as interesting onscreen as the old-timers in the spy agencies: Bill Camp on the CIA side, and Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds running the Russian operatives.
In the end, what matters in a star vehicle like “Red Sparrow” is how well it showcases the star. On that score, Jennifer Lawrence overcomes the obstacles and makes out fine, mixing steely drive and a hint of vulnerability to make Dominika intensely watchable, even when the movie around her trudges on behind her.
Jennifer Lawrence, as a Russian spy trained to seduce, is more alluring than the plodding thriller she’s in.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, March 2.
Rating • R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.
Running time • 139 minutes.