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.