Back in the early ’90s, the end of the Cold War was a win for global peace but a serious blow for Hollywood espionage films. Without the hammer-and-sickle menace of the Soviet Union, we had to scramble to find new bogeymen. But now, with American democracy under siege from old foes once again, we suddenly find ourselves living in the brave new world of Cold War 2.0. As up-to-the-minute as the Mueller investigation, Red Sparrow couldn’t be more timely. If only it were a better movie.
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi whose dancing career comes to a sudden, grisly end after she breaks her leg on stage. And with it comes the end of her state-sponsored privileges, including medical care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). Dominika is at a desperate crossroads. At least until her creepy, connected uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking like a young Putin) offers her a lifeline by enrolling her in a perverse, top secret program that trains young operatives in spycraft and the honey-trap art of seduction. Lorded over by a stern battle-ax (Charlotte Rampling doing a Rosa Klebb, She Wolf of Siberia riff), this “whore school” piles on humiliations until Dominika is sent into the real world to get close—very close—to a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) and tease out the Russian mole feeding him intelligence.
When it works, which is about half the time, Red Sparrow feels like a throwback (albeit a kinkier one) to the cloak-and-dagger thrillers of the Reagan-Bush era, such as Gorky Park and The Russia House. The double crosses stack up like nesting dolls. But it’s all fairly ludicrous. Lawrence is a magnetic presence who can suck you in with a grin or a glare, but the sex-as-a-weapon politics of her character feel more exploitative than empowering. And her chemistry with Edgerton never makes the leap from the page to the screen. The less said about her moose-and-squirrel accent, the better.
Directed by Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow wants to combine the lurid danger of La Femme Nikita with the cerebral suspense of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But it never adds up to the sum of its promising parts: exotic Eastern-bloc locales, grimy slick-street noir visuals, a supporting cast that can turn bad movies into watchable ones (Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Mary-Louise Parker). Even the technology feels dated (floppy disks!). Only a clever, sting-in-the-tail finale hints at the better movie this might have been. As it stands, though, Red Sparrow is like a KGB amnesia serum: It evaporates from your memory five minutes after you walk out of the theater. C