Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) re-teams with her “Hunger Games” director Francis Lawrence. “Red Sparrow” debuting in March was enough to lower my expectations, especially after the Hollywood star’s last Razzie nominated project. It begins with one heck of an opening sequence, the first indication this film is not what you expect. Justin Haythe’s script based on former CIA agent Jason Matthews’ book, is quite an explosive, violent and sexual spy thriller. “Red Sparrow” works for a couple of reasons, it never gives the audience what they might expect, in turn keeping us guessing every step of the way. Lawrence easily gives one of her most demanding performances, both physical and mental. It’s rare for such a movie star like herself, without makeup or playing some degenerative character, to disappear into a role the way she does here, she is exquisite.
Once the most adorned ballerina in Moscow, an injury gives Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) no other choice but to take a job offer from her Uncle Vanya Egorov, sub-head of Russian intelligence. She will train as a sparrow, learning to understand men’s desire to fulfill whatever espionage mission she is assigned. “There are no accidents. We create our own fates.” Dominika’s training under Matron (Charlotte Rampling), the Headmistress of Sparrow School, proves wildly unpredictable and she is quickly placed in the field to get close to CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton). Dominika’s only real allegiance is to her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) and will do anything to secure her protection.
It’s the violence that really impressed me to begin with. Not the inclusion of violence, but the way it’s used unconventionally and unexpectedly. “Red Sparrow” has a handful of scenes that flirt with the horror genre, both in their grotesque nature and how it frames our leading sparrow. The Russian training program, Dominika refers to as “whore school,” is well known to the male characters, on how the trainees are taught to manipulate targets through sex. Lawrence’s character masters this technique in a defining scene that display’s her unmatched dedication to the role, which I think might be her most vulnerable and demanding yet. If “Red Sparrow” were debuting during the fall season, we would be talking best actress consideration. There is a darkness and a soul withdrawal to Dominika that goes far beyond Katniss Everdeen.
Despite Edgerton (“Black Mass”) being slightly miscast here, the supporting slate of “Red Sparrow” characters is well defined. Matthias Schoenaerts (“The Danish Girl”) is especially scene-stealing, playing against type. Charlotte Rampling isn’t too far from her role in “Never Let Me Go,” but it’s still effective; she and Lawrence have some of the film’s best moments. What makes this espionage spy thriller better than others is the creativity and intelligence behind the story and script. Each scene creates an entirely new pocket of suspense, combined with the film’s unpredictable violent streak that holds the viewers’ undivided attention for over two hours. “Red Sparrow” has everything “Atomic Blonde” lacked in an inventive spy film, it’s more intricate than the last forgettable Bourne flicks, and might even redeem Lawrence for mother!
Final Thought — “Red Sparrow” is the provocatively violent spy thriller we never knew we were missing.