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La Flimsy Nikita

Red Sparrow tries to have its dumb spy thriller and its gritty realism, too.

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20TH CENTURY FOX FILMS
  • 20TH Century Fox Films
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Early in the espionage thriller Red Sparrow, Bolshoi Ballet prima ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) suffers a catastrophic injury when her pas de deux partner lands on her leg, the kind of Joe Theismann-esque "wait, that's not supposed to bend that way" event where everyone immediately knows her career is over. Three months later, she's walking with a cane. A few days later, she's walking without a cane. A few weeks after that, she's cross-country running after being strong-armed into joining a training program for elite Russian spies. And at no point does anyone ever stop to consider the possibility that hey, maybe this woman with superhuman healing abilities might be able to dance again after all.

Movies have always been full of dumb things that audiences are expected to accept on faith because the premise depends on them. If Red Sparrow were meant to be nothing but a dopey airport-novel of a movie, it might actually be possible to get carried away by the popcorn logic. This adaptation of Jason Matthews' novel, however, is a movie that leans hard into being gritty, bloody, torture-y and extra-extra-rapey. When you're making the equivalent of Trigger Warning: The Motion Picture, it's not a good look to also be saying "lol don't think about it so much, it's only a movie."

Without all of that junk, the concept isn't half-bad. Facing the loss of her Bolshoi privileges—including medical care for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson)—and targeted for elimination after witnessing a murder, Dominika feels she has no choice but to accept the proposal put forth by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a Russian intelligence officer. That means becoming a Sparrow—one of the secret agents trained in the arts of seduction (stop laughing) so that they can find and exploit their targets' emotional weak points. Before long, Dominika has her first big assignment: cozying up to American CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton) to determine the identity of the mole within the Russian government who's feeding Nash information.

It's certainly a timely enough idea to reposition Russia as our primary global antagonist, though there's a Cold War throwback sensibility to imagining the greatest threat to our security coming from a sexy covert operative rather than social-media troll-bots in a warehouse. Lawrence is the secret weapon for making this come at all close to working—just as she was with a similarly icky concept in Passengers—bringing her steely determination to bear on the enigmatic Dominika. She's able to sell the fury with which Dominika beats down someone who conspired against her, and the idea that her competitive spirit makes her just as likely to become a great secret agent as a great dancer.

What she can't do is make anyone watching Red Sparrow ignore all the unpleasantness. The humiliations Dominika is required to endure under the tutelage of Matron (Charlotte Rampling) are somehow the least cringe-inducing material here, as director Francis Lawrence—who worked with no-relation Jennifer on three of the four Hunger Games films—goes whole-hog for the squeamish points. Dominika endures one actual rape and one attempted rape; a character is discovered dead in a bathtub with chunks of flesh carved out; Edgerton's Nash is on the receiving end of a torture device that flays off layers of skin; Dominika gets a couple of good old-fashioned beatings with a slow build-up that lets us know exactly where the next blow is coming. It's relentless, and not in a good way.

The weird part is that Red Sparrow clearly shares some DNA with unabashedly trashy, stylish genre fare in the Luc Besson tradition, from La Femme Nikita right down to Lucy. You can see it in the purring performances by supporting cast members like Rampling and Jeremy Irons, in set pieces like Dominika's attempt to play both sides of a potential American informant for the Russians (Mary-Louise Parker), and in the build-up toward the climactic twisty-turny revelations. But a potboiler diversion like that can't work if it's expecting you to have fun at the same time that it's punching you repeatedly in the mouth. Punishing intensity ain't the vibe for a movie where the crippled ballerina instantly becomes an international super-sexy-spy.

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