“The West is weak,” says a Russian spy-school headmistress, code-named Matron, in “Red Sparrow.” She continues: “Drunk on shopping and social media! Torn apart by hatred between the races!” Matron, played by a drab-gray Charlotte Rampling, isn’t speaking to a group of election-system hackers or fake-protest organizers, though. She’s teaching her students how to peddle something even more dependably disruptive: sex.
Sex is also what “Red Sparrow” is selling, in the form of a barely clothed Jennifer Lawrence. She plays Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina who one day literally breaks a leg and then — through a series of complicated events — becomes a spy skilled in the art of seduction. “Red Sparrow” is high-class trash, and Lawrence knows it: “Am I good in it?” she mused on Marc Maron’s podcast recently. “Who can say? I’m naked in the movie, so please go.” You’ll get what you paid for in that department, but you’ll also find yourself watching an oddly un-erotic thriller.
Its heroine is a bit of an enigma. On the one hand, Dominika is a passive victim of fate, manipulated by her powerful uncle Vanya (an excellent Matthias Schoenaerts). She’s an A-plus student during training, but also a headstrong rebel who refuses to be raped as part of her loyalty-to-the-motherland test. And when Dominika meets CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), she’s either playing his lover or actually falling in love.
Given all the accelerated heart rates here (there’s also some garroting and skin-removal torture), why does this movie feel so bloodless? I think it’s because “Red Sparrow” shows us plenty of Lawrence’s body but not enough of what’s going on inside her. We see examples of Dominika’s mental agility, but because the plot plays three-card Monte with the truth, we are kept in the dark about Dominika’s true feelings. When it comes to sex, Dominika — like the movie itself — seems to be just going through the motions.
Directed with incongruous elegance by Francis Lawrence (no relation, though he also directed “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) and rather nicely written by Justin Haythe from Jason Matthews’ novel, “Red Sparrow” isn’t trashy fun like “Atomic Blonde” and it certainly doesn’t have the brains of a “Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy.” It does, however, have Lawrence in a harness-style bikini, so maybe you should take her advice and go.