With even James Bond doing more psychological self-analysis than actual spying lately, there’s room for a movie that really is about espionage.
“Red Sparrow” is not that movie, but at least it offers some cloak-and-dagger stuff. There are double agents, special spy camps and various murky encounters behind the Iron Curtain.
Wait, did I say Iron Curtain? “Red Sparrow” feels like a Cold War movie, but no, it’s actually set in the present day. Still, Russia and the U.S. are circling each other, warily.
Our superspy is Jennifer Lawrence, somewhat unconvincingly cast as a famous Russian ballerina. When an onstage accident ends her performing career, she is recruited by her shady uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, late of “A Bigger Splash”) for a creepy role in the international spy game.
By the way, Schoenaerts is taller than Vladimir Putin, and doesn’t take his shirt off as much, but I suspect the strong physical resemblance is entirely intentional.
So the ex-ballerina is sent to a training program for agents who must be willing to seduce and sleep with potential contacts. This unpleasant prospect turns her into an embittered soul, which calls for a slow-burning fury that Jennifer Lawrence happens to be pretty good at conveying.
We’re supposed to keep guessing whether her flirtation with a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton, from “Loving”) is on the level, and what the eventual end game is. It’s a decent set-up for a spy picture, but director Francis Lawrence (no relation to the star, although he directed three of the “Hunger Games” films) is overly entranced by the film’s many scenes of torture.
You expect some of that. When one sinister Russian agent holds up what looks like a cheese grater and asks a handcuffed hostage, “Do you know how long it takes to peel the skin from a human body?”, you accept it as part of the price of world peace in a movie like this. But you don’t necessarily want to watch.
The film scores points for a good supporting cast — you can’t do better than Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds as cigarette-fondling Russian operatives, and Charlotte Rampling makes for a scary spy-school headmistress (“You will know me as the Matron,” she hisses).
I enjoyed the guessing game, and Lawrence’s steely presence. There’s just not enough fun to counterbalance the very grim nature of this stolid piece of work — but given the basic premise of spies sacrificing their bodies for their work, fun was never going to be part of the picture.
“Red Sparrow” (2 stars)
Jennifer Lawrence is a Russian ballerina recruited to do some particularly unpleasant spy work, notably by seducing CIA agent Joel Edgerton. The film’s guessing game is pretty enjoyable, but the otherwise grim material (and a taste for torture) wear thin after a while. With Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling.
Rating: R, for violence, nudity, language
Showing: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall