Based on the book of the same name by Jason Matthews, Red Sparrow follows a star ballerina named Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence), whose career is abruptly cut short after a horrifying accident during a stage performance. Soon, her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), who works for the Russian intelligence, persuades her to join him as a spy. After sending her to Sparrow School, Dominika’s first mission is to seduce CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) for extracting valuable information.
Call it the antithesis of Atomic Blonde. If you are expecting Jennifer Lawrence kicking ass like Charlize Theron did, this is definitely not the kind of action-centric spy movie you’re looking for. Instead, Red Sparrow is more of a cerebral spy thriller reminiscent of John le Carré-like old-school espionage tale. It’s a slow-burn as well but surprisingly, the movie’s nearly 140-minute running time is absorbing enough to keep me intrigued.
This is mainly due to Jennifer Lawrence’s captivating performance as Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina turned Russian spy. Her role is as icy as the cold-hearted premise itself. With the exception of her wobbly Russian accent, she is stunning to look at and equally fetching as a seductress who uses sex as her main weapon. But the sex is hardly aimed for titillation. Even the numerous nude scenes (shame that we have to deal with our local censorship board here) are executed in a non-gratuitous manner. Take one of the most talked-about scenes in the movie, for instance. The scene where she strips completely naked in front of a male recruit in the class, urging him to f**k her. The element of sex and nudity is treated more like a necessary power of dominance, particularly in the gritty, dog-eat-dog world of espionage where nothing is sugarcoated. In the case of Lawrence’s Dominika, she is willing to use her own body to get she wants or as the actress put it, the nude scenes empower her.
Frankly, I’m surprised that Red Sparrow able to make it through into our local cinemas, given its main theme that deals with sexual exploitation. But despite all the censorship (mostly uses the pan-and-scan method to obscure the sex and nudity), I’m glad it doesn’t interrupt the overall flow of the movie. Besides Jennifer Lawrence, the movie is also blessed with a great supporting cast including Vladimir Putin doppelgänger Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s scheming uncle, Joel Edgerton as the CIA operative and even minor roles like Jeremy Irons as the Russian intelligence officer and a scene-stealing performance by Mary-Louise Parker as the alcoholic U.S. chief of staff. Then, there’s Charlotte Rampling, delivering a spot-on performance as the no-nonsense instructor of the Sparrow School a.k.a. the “whore school”.
As for director Francis Lawrence, who reunited with Jennifer Lawrence for the fourth time after the last three Hunger Games movies, he doesn’t shy away with unflinching looks of sex and violence. Although the pace tends to bog down with subplots and other scenes that could have used some trimming, Lawrence’s methodical direction remains worthy of a praise. This includes his camera placements as well as his use of suitably drab and stark colour palette to complement the overall tone of the movie. Although Red Sparrow is more talks than action, Lawrence still manages to captivate his viewers with a shockingly violent knife fight towards the climactic finale. The scene itself may have been brief but what matters the most is the ensuing impact that sticks in your mind.
It’s nice to see a cerebral espionage thriller like Red Sparrow still has its place in today’s superhero-centric Hollywood. This is nevertheless one of Francis Lawrence’s best directorial efforts to date since I Am Legend.