RED SPARROW * * *
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling. Screenplay by Justin Haythe. Directed by Francis Lawrence.
Things are pretty PG-13 and neutered out there at the movies these days. Modern multiplexes have become such a sea of bland corporate offerings that it’s downright delicious to happen upon a tawdry little hard-R throwback like Red Sparrow.
Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence’s lurid adaptation of former CIA operative Jason Matthews’ bestseller is by no means a great film –nor even a very good one– but it’s got a nifty, nasty kick to it. Straight-faced and seriously silly, Red Sparrow features globe-trotting, bed-hopping spies chasing floppy disks around exotic locations, and all its prurient preoccupations with sex and violence make the movie feel like it was made at least twenty years ago. I had a blast.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who breaks her leg and is forced to go work for her creepy Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) in a Russian intel honeypot scheme. Before long she’s enrolled in a secret agent school for “sparrows,” taught by who else but Charlotte Rampling – Dean of the University of Cinematic Perversity. Lawrence learns how to be a sexy spy, luring a dim-bulb American CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) into a convoluted anti-intelligence scheme simply by wearing ridiculous swimwear.
“You sent me to Whore School!” Dominika snarls at her uncle, and the fact that he’s actually named Vanya is a tip-off to the picture’s poker-faced pleasures, which keep tongue planted firmly in cheek while never quite ascending into camp. As you’re watching Red Sparrow it’s hard not to envision a slightly more delirious version of this picture directed by Brian De Palma, and at times our dye-job blonde protagonist is photographed in such 4th Man/Black Book/Basic Instinct fashion you might assume that director Lawrence (no relation to his star) and cinematographer Jo Willems are starting a Paul Verhoeven cover band.
Jennifer Lawrence has spoken in interviews about using this movie’s blunt sexuality as a way to reclaim the agency stolen when her phone was hacked and personal photos disseminated all over the internet. Her big nude scene here is indeed a doozy, with Dominika humiliating an attempted rapist in one of the movie’s most cathartic moments. It’s hard to miss the message being sent as the actress taunts an impotent, masturbating weirdo while he leers at her naked body. She might as well be talking directly to the dudes who are probably already watching this scene on Mr. Skin.
J.Law convincingly sheds her Cheeto-eating, girl-next-door-who-trips-on-red-carpets persona and sells the icy sex kitten routine. Alas, Joel Edgerton is hardly up to the task of playing Michael Douglas to her Sharon Stone. I’m consistently confounded as to why studios keep trying to make this dull Australian actor (who my old roommate astutely describes as looking like “a sad potato”) into a star, but by this point I can only assume he’s either got the best agent in the world or some sort of kompromat is involved.
Far more satisfying supporting turns come from Mary-Louise Parker as a boozebag traitor and Jeremy Irons exhibiting his usual contagious self-amusement as a mysterious general. (Someday I hope to enjoy anything in my life as much as Jeremy Irons appears to enjoy being a ham.) 140 minutes is probably twenty too long to get to a plot twist I really should have seen coming an hour beforehand, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t delighted all the same.