Movie Review: Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence sleepwalks through a turgid spy flick.

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Twentieth Century Fox

Jennifer Lawrence gets all kinds of naked in Red Sparrow. It's a crass thing to say at the outset of a review, I know, but this unusually brutal spy movie traffics so heavily in Lawrence's nudity that it has to be a factor in any assessment of the film.

When hacked nude photos of Lawrence surfaced online four years ago, she implored fans not to look at them (as if that would actually dissuade anyone). Now she says that doing nudity of her own volition in this film allowed her to reclaim her body. ("I feel like something that was taken from me I got back and am using in my art.") Okay. But then the movie also allows her to get violently raped, stripped and beaten bloody with a club, and, in a scene set in a sort of spy-sex classroom, to be positioned on a desk naked, with her legs spread, ordering one of the observing students to approach and have his way with her. (The movie is hard-R, of course, not X.)

The coupling of sex and sadism is nothing new, but if you're going to do this sort of movie, it should be a little livelier than Red Sparrow is. However, director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer, whom he also guided through the last three Hunger Games pictures), plays it straight, as if he were doing a Le Carré adaptation. So instead of putting a kicky, athletic spin on the action, in the manner of last year's Atomic Blonde, he goes for basic blood and bone-break, which isn't a lot of fun.

The picture begins in Moscow with Lawrence's Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina, taking a fall onstage and fracturing a leg, which summarily ends her career. Now she'll lose her state-provided apartment and the subsidized medications required by her dear old ailing mother. Fortunately, she has an uncle in the Russian intelligence service. His name is Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), and he offers to bail out his niece by sending her to State School 4, where young "Sparrows" are trained in the lubricious arts of sex and espionage. ("You sent me to whore school!" she later observes.)

Here the movie begins giving off whiffs of old-time exploitation filmmaking—especially when Charlotte Rampling, playing the frosty head of the spy school ("You will call me Matron"), glowers onto the scene as if she'd just stepped out of one of those old women-in-prison films—Love Camp 7, maybe, or one of the Ilsa movies. Unfortunately, although we spend a substantial amount of time with Matron ("You must learn to love on command!"), she's a narrowly drawn character, and is never allowed to work up the sort of classic dominatrix froth we might wish: When one of her students fails a blowjob test, Matron, instead of commanding the girl to report to her dungeon immediately, simply says, "We'll try again tomorrow."

After a practice sex mission in which a fat guy pounding away on top of her is vividly strangled in mid-thrust, Dominika is assigned to get next to a pesky CIA agent amusingly named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). Nate is the handler of a mole in the Russian service, and the top brass (Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds) are hot to get their hands on him. The action shifts to Budapest, where Dominika does indeed connect with Nate. She is also made to endure lines like "Every human being is a puzzle of need." Off on her own, she rubs a guy's crotch and he wallops her in the face. Then there's a pickup/payoff operation in which we marvel at the fact that top Russian spies are still using floppy discs to store their intel on.

There are several things to say about all this. First, even a nude Jennifer Lawrence can't quite overcome the wince-triggering violence in this movie. (And I say that as someone who generally likes movie violence.) Second, Lawrence – a very fine actor who could use some better roles – shuffles through this picture as if demonstrating the drawbacks of opioid ingestion. Also, she and Edgerton have no chemistry whatsoever. (Maybe if he had some opioids too….) On the plus side, there's the movie's one funny sequence, which involves Mary-Louise Parker as a drunken American trying to swap a bunch of sensitive U.S. congressional info for a bag full of cash. (We all need to see much, much more of Mary-Louise Parker.) But then, back on the downside again, there's the long, hideous scene in which a Russki torturer, having strapped Nate Nash to a chair, pulls out some sort of skin-peeling implement and begins peeling the skin off his back. This goes on much longer than it needs to, but so does the whole movie. (It runs two hours and 20 minutes.)

Red Sparrow has all the double-crosses and duplicitous maneuverings you'd expect in this sort of picture, but they're flatly constructed—instead of dazzling you with their witty technique, they just leave you with a headache. Pass the opioids.

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  1. Jennifer Lawrence is a lefty hack.

    Not giving her a dime.

    Besides movies are just bad. They just reboot everything because they cannot come up with creative stories.

    1. You must lead a boring and bitter life if you judge entertainers based upon their politics.

      1. As I said, movies tend to be bad.

        It makes it easy not to give her more money and not waste my time on a bad movie.

        Its fun to avoid lefty hacks and a challenge since they tend to be in a lot of Hollywood productions.

        1. I wonder how you tally up the lefty hack quotient in a movie, or any other product, and how you balance that against various positives, such as righty hacks, nudity, acting chops, plot. I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

          1. If you can name a righty hack in Hollywood, I would gladly send you a free edition of “Commonsense by Libertarians”.

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  2. Jennifer Lawrence gets all kinds of naked in Red Sparrow

    At last, you’ve learned how to not bury the lede.

  3. When one of her students fails a blowjob test, Matron, instead of commanding the girl to report to her dungeon immediately, simply says,

    “YOU HAD ONE-“

  4. The picture begins in Moscow with Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina, taking a fall onstage and fracturing a leg, which summarily ends her career

    “BLAM!”

    1. If the ballerinas titter nervously at the mention of the name “Bl?cher!”, I’m in!

  5. I’ll wait until it’s on Netflix or Amazon.

  6. I couldn’t help but notice she did her now-iconic blank stare that she is so famous for in literally every scene in the trailer.

  7. The book was a difficult read, not something I’d want to see acted out. Some “art” should be left in print, but there is no actually creativity in Hollywood, just copy. Still, seeing JLaw in all kinds of naked is a pretty strong draw. I genuinely like her and wish too she got better roles.

  8. Jennifer Lawrence gets all kinds of naked in Red Sparrow.

    Say no more.

  9. Is this movie about Hillary Clinton being hacked.

  10. So, the Black Widow movie is called ‘Red Sparrow’?

  11. I love Jennifer Lawrence anyway, but I’m not sure how any film she gets naked in can be bad. The artist in me is willing to accept the challenge. I’ll report back!

    1. No, don’t bother, Kurt already told us she’s naked in it.

  12. Does Dominika end up holding a sign reading “#MeToo”?

  13. Wouldn’t they really more be “Brown Sparrows” nowadays, anyway?

    1. Brown with red highlights

  14. Now she says that doing nudity of her own volition in this film allowed her to reclaim her body. (“I feel like something that was taken from me I got back and am using in my art.”)

    “This time, guys will be jerking off to nude pictures of me that I WANTED released!”

    I’ll give her this–she’s certainly demonstrating why actors and actresses, going back to the ancient world, were considered to be on the same rung of the social ladder as prostitutes.

  15. Jennifer Lawrence can be great in the right movie, but she sure appears in some disgusting ones. Sell this one in the boxed set with the one in which 16 year olds fight to the death. Ewww.

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