Simultaneously effective and uninspired, “Red Sparrow” is successful in fits and starts. A perfectly serviceable spy thriller, it inevitably leaves behind the feeling that a better film was possible than the one that made it to the screen.
Certainly, all signs were promising, starting with the strongly reviewed Edgar-winning 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, a 33-year CIA veteran who, the book’s publicity somberly noted, “engaged in a clandestine collection of national security intelligence, specializing in denied-area operations.” Hard to argue with that.
It’s also hard to nitpick the cast, top-lined by the always appealing Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton, with supporting work by all-star teammates like Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling and Matthias Schoenaerts.
And the plot on offer certainly is a juicy one, with Lawrence playing a reluctant Russian former ballerina trained by the state to use the arts of sexual seduction to extract information from unsuspecting foreigners. Edgerton is the CIA operative who becomes the object of her machinations. What could go wrong?
In truth, nothing catastrophic does. Though there are significant plot changes from the book, including a key deviation near the end, “Red Sparrow” does not stint on surprise twists and unexpected events — so many that we sometimes have trouble keeping up.
Instead, as directed by Francis Lawrence from a script by Justin Haythe, “Red Sparrow” defaults to stodgy when its story isn’t dishing out the book’s explicit sex and violence (including attempted rape), with lines and scenes that feel flat and obligatory alternating with ones that have no trouble holding our attention.
Director Lawrence, initially best known for his music video work, met star Lawrence (no relation) when he directed her as Katniss Everdeen in the last three “Hunger Games” movies, and it was his interest in the spy novel that led to her involvement in the film.
But though director Lawrence brought a necessary pizzazz to the “Games” films, the difficulty he has here creating involving emotional connections on screen echoes the problems he had adapting 2011’s “Water for Elephants,” and screenwriter Haythe, whose credits include “Revolutionary Road” and the miserable “Lone Ranger,” is not much help.
Which leaves Lawrence and Edgerton to shoulder the lion’s share of audience involvement more or less on their own. They do the best they can under the circumstances, which include book-derived scenes of graphic torture that do not help.
“Red Sparrow” begins with parallel narratives, introducing the film’s two protagonists both having to deal with the essence of their lives going very, very wrong.
Met first is Moscow-based undercover CIA operative Nate Nash (Edgerton), the man who handles the agency’s invaluable Russian double agent, code name Marble. A clandestine meeting with Marble is botched and Nash, his cover blown, is forced to leave the country.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), by contrast, is a top Russian ballerina and a Bolshoi star whose on-screen dancing combines the actress’ hard work with CGI wizardry. (Egorova’s gift for synesthesia, the ability to see the emotions of others as colors, though central to the book, has been eliminated without a trace.)
A career-ending injury, however, puts the dancer’s entire life, including the apartment where she cares for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson), in jeopardy. Then her uncle, Ivan Egorov, intensely played by Schoenaerts as a Vladimir Putin look-alike, takes a hand.
As first deputy director of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service, Egorov is in a position to offer his niece, whose steely resolve Lawrence convincingly conveys, a different way of life.
In consultation with the head of the SVR’s Americas Department, Maj. Gen. Vladimir Korchnoi (Irons, excellent as always), Egorov talks up the clandestine State School No. 4, where students train to become “sparrows,” experts in the use of psychological manipulation and sexual seduction to extract information from gullible Westerners.
His niece is contemptuous at first, complaining that “you’re sending me to whore school,” but go she does, and under the stern tutelage of Matron (Rampling at her most chilling), she learns what it means when “your body belongs to the state.” Hint: Nudity is involved.
Egorova’s first post-grad assignment is Nash, who has gone to Budapest to attempt to reconnect with the mole Marble. The elaborate spy-versus-spy cat-and-mouse games these two play, the psychological jujitsu moves they try on each other, are the heart of “Red Sparrow.” It’s just too bad it doesn’t make our own hearts beat as fast as they should.
Rating: R, for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Playing: In general release