Back in the Cold War days of the 1980s, movies featuring Americans and Russians (née Soviets) facing off were plentiful. While the Russians have never truly lost their sense of menace in American films, there have been few recent examples of the two countries battling each other for supremacy.
With the current interest in the real-world machinations of Russia, there's perhaps no better time for the release of Red Sparrow. Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a former ballerina who is recruited/blackmailed into becoming a spy by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts). Her training mostly eschews combat in favor of the art of seduction, with trainees learning how to manipulate their targets through sex.
Meanwhile, American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) has lost touch with his Russian mole. His effort to re-establish contact with the mole and Dominika's rise in the Russian spy agency coincide, with each trying to play the other to get what they want.
As a spy movie, the film works surprisingly well. The inevitable twists and turns that crop up play out in unexpected ways, with director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe making sure not to telegraph where the film is heading. It does contain some clichés, but they are kept to a minimum thanks to an off-balance style of filmmaking.
Re-teaming with her Hunger Games director, Lawrence appears to be right at home in the new universe, based on the book by Jason Matthews. While it's glib to say that she's trying to create a more mature image given the darkness of The Hunger Games and her rich Oscars history, the role is certainly a departure for her. She has multiple nude scenes, and plot points hinge on her character's ability — or inability, as the case may be — to be effectively seductive.
The film, while relatively light in action, has a high wince factor. The few scenes involving violence are extreme, full of bones crunching, blood splattering, and camerawork that refuses to give the audience the easy way out. Even those well versed in the punishment doled out in other action movies may find themselves turning away from the blows delivered here.
The story itself has its ups and downs. While efforts are made to flesh out the main characters, the filmmakers sometimes spend too much time establishing relationships. At 134 minutes, the film is a good 20-30 minutes too long. They easily could have excised a few minor characters, such as Dominika's essentially useless mother, Nina (Joely Richardson), and it would have worked equally well.
You'd also do well to turn a deaf ear to the iffy Russian accents turned in by the majority of the cast. Lawrence, Charlotte Rampling, and Jeremy Irons are all outstanding actors, but they are far from believable as actual Russians.
Red Sparrow is not quite the start of a Bourne-like franchise for Lawrence, but as a one-off experience, it's wholly satisfying.