Jennifer Lawrence is a movie star who, at 27, happens also to be a genuine and terrifically nervy actress. Her talent remains very much in evidence in the spy thriller “Red Sparrow.”
But in the coolly preposterous role of a Slavic Mata Hari, straight out of a secret Russian “whore school” run by Charlotte Rampling, Lawrence lets her frozen bangs do the heavy lifting, while her face betrays as little as possible. She’s a sex-worker edition of John le Carre’s George Smiley — a sphinx crossed with Buster Keaton, and double-crossed by a script dependent on torture, rape and whack-a-mole espionage tropes.
The biggest female star in the world, Lawrence is coming off the release of “mother!” — a risky provocation. In that film she served as audience conduit for an increasingly nightmarish trip inside a narcissistic male ego. We could use more messes like that movie; I never knew where it was going, and even the most outlandish images felt alive and cinematic.
“Red Sparrow” is more of a square, as provocations go. It adapts the first in a trilogy of novels by ex-CIA operative Jason Matthews. Rising young Bolshoi ballerina Dominika (Lawrence) suffers a suspicious onstage injury. Her incestuous-minded uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts, looking like the movie-star version of Vladimir Putin) has a new career in mind for her: He blackmails her into attending “Sparrow” school, a state-run institution focused on training a new generation of ruthless, sexually manipulative spies with an interest in travel.
The faculty head, played by Rampling, trains her young women and men in the clinical art of seduction, which leads to a variety of pervy classroom exercises. At one point Dominika, naked, taunts a sexually aggressive fellow classmate into wormy submission. I suppose that scene is designed to give a male audience what it wants, while also making the scene skeevy enough to make you wince. Is that complexity or hypocrisy?
Much of “Red Sparrow” concerns Dominika’s primary assignment: Cozying up to an American agent, played by Joel Edgerton, and learning the identity of the apparent double agent in his employ. Mary-Louise Parker hijacks the movie for 15 minutes or so, as a boozed-up U.S. Senate chief of staff looking to sell classified intel to the Russians. That plotline hinges on the exchange of some highly inflammatory information stored on floppy disks, and yes, Virginia, there was a time not so many years ago that people, even spies, probably, relied on these disks to store their secrets. That time is no more, except in the movie “Red Sparrow.”
The cast excels at transcending its material. The script by Justin Haythe matches Francis Lawrence’s direction; it’s workmanlike and steady and pretty flat. This may be a matter of a director having made one too many “Hunger Games” movies (he handled three) to clear his head sufficiently before tackling something different. I took minimal pleasure in the guessing games of the later stretches; I took zero pleasure in the lingering skin-graft torture sequence endured by one of the major characters. (You’d be an idiot to let anyone under 16 see it.) Half of the “Red Sparrow” audience will spend at least part of the running time fighting off memories of “Salt” and “Atomic Blonde” and the Black Widow storyline from “The Avengers.”
The other half, meantime, will wonder when spy movies became quite so punishing.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
'Red Sparrow' -- 1.5 stars
MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language, and some graphic nudity)
Running time: 2:20
Opens: Thursday evening