Jennifer Lawrence Commands Brutal Spy Pic "Red Sparrow"

No less than six months after starring in Darren Aronofsky’s wackadoo (and brilliant) “mother!,” millennial A-lister Jennifer Lawrence returns in another anti-crowd pleaser: twisty, twisted spy thriller “Red Sparrow.”

Led by her “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” director Francis Lawrence (no relation; one of the few innate talents to come from the overhyped crop of early 2000s music video directors), the film not only cements its star’s commitment to challenging both herself and audiences – it consistently one-ups itself. Justin Haythe’s script (based on the novel by real-life spy Jason Matthews) methodically ramps up the sexual and violent manipulation, alternating between slow and sadistic, all groomed by a filmmaker in full bloom.

Not for every palate, to put it mildly.

The picture opens with a terrific montage that feels like Francis Lawrence eagerly busting out of his “Hunger Games” shell. An American CIA agent’s cover is blown while a Russian prima ballerina’s career comes to an ignominious end. The agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), unceremoniously discharges his gun in a Moscow park to alert a nearby source of trouble. Cut to famed dancer Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) soaking in adoring applause. Seconds later, a grotesque injury ends her career. Two figures inexorably linked by cruel fortune.

It isn’t long before Dominika finds herself penniless, unable to support her ailing mother (Joely Richardson). The ex-dancer’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), a powerful intelligence officer, offers financial support in exchange for work, beginning with a seemingly straightforward act of deception. Dominika is tasked with seducing a politician and replacing his phone with a bugged duplicate. The scheme goes off as promised by Ivan until a trained killer swoops in and kills the target – the plan all along.

Thus begins Dominika’s long, slow fall down a rabbit hole of extortion.

Unwittingly sent off to “Sparrow School” – also not-so-affectionately referred to as “whore school” – and put through its terrible paces by a cruel headmistress (Charlotte Rampling), our protagonist finds herself in an winner-takes-all fight for her own soul. Meanwhile, Nash struggles to maintain contact with a high-ranking Russian mole, putting him on a path to Budapest, Hungary, where he’ll inevitably collide with one newly graduated “Sparrow School” standout.

As confrontational and ugly as the film gets – its torture scenes and equating of sex and subterfuge can be hard to take – Jennifer Lawrence does a masterful job of dissecting Dominika. The character’s burden of being so good at something so outwardly terrible – and ultimate embrace of said skillset – is fascinating stuff, even more so when she becomes tangled up with a sex-starved American spy bent on turning her into a double agent. Both actors tear into the material, with Edgerton, one of filmdom’s most underrated leading men, capably rounding out a less developed character.

If Justin Haythe’s script is occasionally sluggish, its dearth of action scenes belying a 140-minute running time, Francis Lawrence remains true to the piece’s hook: a scintillating femme fatale played by one of the best young actors on the planet. A brief but memorable supporting turn from Jeremy Irons as a mysterious Russian general only adds to the feeling that “Red Sparrow,” in all of its uncomfortable, slow-burn glory, is fated to life as an overlooked, underseen gem. Jason Bourne was never this compelling.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: March 2, 2018
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeremy Irons
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity)