Lawrence Trades Arrows for Stoic Sexuality in 'Red Sparrow'

Directed by: Francis Lawrence; Runtime: 140 minutes
Grade: B

Almost overnight, Francis Lawrence went from being "the guy responsible for a bland Omega Man remake" to "the director who made a (debatably) better Hunger Games film than the original", taking the helm of the popular young-adult franchise spearheaded by Jennifer Lawrence. A significant part of why Catching Fire turned out as well as it did was because director Lawrence engages the psychology of a headstrong yet traumatized woman, someone who's been forced to endure harrowing situations involving violence and death that, in one way or another, were of her doing. The duo aims to hit a similar blend of suspenseful action and mental torment with Red Sparrow, which puts Jennifer Lawrence in the position of a recruited cover agent for the Russian government shortly after her character endures truly disturbing circumstances. While it's exhilarating, bleak, and daring in how it explores sexuality as a weapon, the nature of the story keeps deeper examinations of the main character at arm's length, producing an absorbing reluctant-spy thriller whose expressive layers never completely catch fire.

The sparrow here -- yeah, I know, the bird nicknames are a little much one right after the other -- is Dominika (Lawrence), an ex-dancer who was abruptly knocked out of the Bolshi ballet company. In her period of grief and realization afterwards, and while wrestling with new financial troubles, Dominika gets approached by a relative (a debonair Matthias Schoenaerts) to join Russian Intelligence, effectively making her a spy. After enduring and adapting to certain complications in her first "assignment", she's sent off to train to be one of the "sparrows": spies specifically chosen for their physical or sexual attributes. Her training hones both her powers of seduction and her threshold for indecency and passion, making her the ideal candidate to sniff out the identity of a mole among the Russian government's hierarchy, which starts by her building a relationship with Nash (Joel Edgerton), a rough-around-the-edges and now-identified CIA operative. Motives shift, and allegiances come under question as she works to achieving her mission.

Classic, almost archetypal circumstances bring Dominika into the spy fold, yet whether that's the product of familiar storytelling or the impacts of having an ex-CIA employee -- Jason Matthews, also the source book's author -- as an active creative force behind Red Sparrow can be unclear. Financial troubles, medical bills, and ailing parents provide commonplace motivations for the young woman to essentially be forced into a world of espionage, while the bitterness stemming from her failed career choice has that same kind of quasi true-story mundanity to it. The pathway to Dominika becoming involved with Russian Intelligence may earn degrees of base sympathy, but it's not terribly inventive in how it does so, and perhaps that's a good thing. Instead, the somewhat monotonous real-world texture of her backstory doesn't get in the way of how her desperation and spite evolve alongside the moving parts of her introduction to espionage, providing a foundation for the weapon that she's to become.

Teetering on the line between graphic violence and harrowing themes must've been a lot for the Lawrence-Lawrence duo to take in The Hunger Games, because Red Sparrow gives them the chance to push much further than they've gone before, especially when it comes to the boundaries involving sexuality and violence. The content does become graphic early and throughout, involving instances of rape and humiliation that'll be uncomfortable for some -- most? -- viewers; however, the bleakness of the story's viewpoint on lost innocence and the corruption and weaponization of sexuality becomes a compelling thematic driving force. Under the tutelage of an appropriately stern Charlotte Rampling, training to become a "sparrow" ends up being the crux of Dominika's character development, in which the caliber of her physique becomes what's perceived to be the only tool left at her disposal, keeping her world afloat. Watching how she takes the dynamics of sexual aggression and twists them into true instruments of power can be both mesmerizing and disheartening, where one admires the steeling of her resolve but also laments what she endures and loses along the way.

Thus, Dominika ends up being cold and detached, expressing little of the personality that lies underneath the clinical operative that leaves the sparrow training facility. That becomes a complicated aspect of Red Sparrow, in that this becomes less of an examination of her character and more about observing what said character becomes in the wake of her world being ravaged and broken to a point of no return, providing a unique challenge for Jennifer Lawrence. There are subtleties in her performance as Dominika charges into the gauntlet of her real assignment, in which the character dispatches her new arsenal of psychological tricks without being completely hardened by her experiences, where glances, twitches, and quakes in dialogue offer momentary glimpses at the person she once was. Lawrence displays bravery -- both physical and emotional -- in the chain reaction of sequences that get her into the field as a "sparrow", and through an on-and-off tolerable Russian accent portrays a woman who both channels and restrains ferocity while gathering intel, getting close to Joel Edgerton's stock CIA-operative, and doing a little sleight of hand.

Much like the circumstances leading into Dominika's acceptance into the Russian spy program, the hunt for a mole and the manipulations between competing spies come together into mundane plotting for Red Sparrow, though that's somewhat par for the course with "everyday" bouts of espionage. While the script fabricates tension through unnecessary physical obstacles and bad decisions made by those outside the world of espionage -- Mary-Louise Parker turns in a peculiar cameo as an informant drunk out of her mind -- the bravado involved with how director Lawrence executes torture sequences and connects the dots of several underlying mysteries offset those shortcomings in credibility. Again, Red Sparrow isn't intriguing because of what's happening, but in how Dominika manipulates the events with the tools now at her disposal, as her motivations and allegiances appear to remain fluid all the way until its cunningly arranged finale. It's gripping to watch her decide that she's going to be the sparrow, yet that transformation lacks dramatic poignancy without a clear perspective on an earlier version of herself.

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