If you pay too much attention to trailers, you might think that Red Sparrow, the new film from Francis Lawrence, exists somewhere on the spectrum between Atomic Blonde and the Black Widow flashbacks from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Lawrence, once again teaming with actress Jennifer Lawrence after three straight Hunger Games movies, and Fox certainly want you to think that way, at least, and considering how well regarded Atomic Blonde generally was and how well Jennifer Lawrence has done at the box office as an action heroine, it makes sense. And as the first major release since Black Panther took control of the box office by the scruff of its neck, the film is decently positioned to be the next box office titan, though the hard R rating could cut into its prospects a bit. But still, a spy thriller with a female bent seems like just the sort of film that can carve out a comfortable little niche in pop culture.
Lawrence is Dominika, a well-regarded ballerina whose career on the stage is ended by a freak accident that sees her leg shattered during a performance. Or was it an accident? After seeking out a bit of revenge, Dominika is cast out from the Bolshoi ballet troop and turns to her uncle, Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), for aid with money and shelter and help taking care of her sick mother. Vayna’s work isn’t exactly above board or particularly legal, and Dominika’s involvement finds her doomed to be drawn further into the seedy Russian underbelly. She’s sent away to become a Sparrow, an elite group of seducers/spies trained by the haughty and intense Matron (Charlotte Rampling), who teaches her to cast off her inhibitions (and her clothes) in service of the state. At the same time, an American CIA agent named Nate (Joel Edgerton) has his cover in Russia blown attempting to save his mole in the government, only to return and find himself on a collision course with Dominika, fresh from Sparrow school and eager to prove herself. But she also has more than enough reason to mistrust her handlers. Where her final loyalty lies remains to be seen.
Red Sparrow definitely wears its influences on its sleeve (even if those influences aren't the ones you might assume they are based on the trailer), acting as an intersection of sorts between classical spy films like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with the more depraved puzzle boxes of the last few years like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Gone Girl (or, presumably, other movies not made by David Fincher). Lawrence, like Fincher, got his start in the music video game, and has grown into a steady hand as a feature director, having made the pinnacle of young adult franchise filmmaking in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. There’s some of the vitality that made that film so good present here, and Lawrence and DP Jo Willems have a good eye for scale, knowing when to revel in the vistas and architecture of Eastern Europe and when to pen his characters in with the frame and focus on the tension and claustrophobia of not knowing who you can trust and who is listening in.
The cast, chock full of dependable character actors like Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Bill Camp and Rampling, certainly finds delight in the mire of pulp and John le Carre-esque spy thriller twists and turns. They, along with another magnetic leading performance from Lawrence, represent Red Sparrow’s saving grace. The content is about as schlocky as it gets, filled to the brim with sex and violence, glitz and glamor. It takes itself far too seriously most of the time, but these shady, hushed conversations are a lot easier to digest when they’re whispered by a scowling Jeremy Irons or Schoenaerts doing his best Mads Mikkelsen impersonation. But Lawrence is still unquestionably the star, thoroughly at home with a character that careens between a master of her craft, a woman forced to deal with the loss of the skills that formed her entire identity, a shrinking violet, a sexual dynamo, a spy and any number of other personas needed to ensure her survival. It’s the sort of performance we’ve come to expect from her, and alongside mother! represents continued proof that while she’d been in a bit of a funk thanks to some subpar X-Men movies and Joy and Passengders, she’s still more than capable of challenging herself and coming out well on the other side.
In the end, though, Red Sparrow doesn’t have much staying power. Its big final twist reveal is fine enough, but it lacks the surprise or punch of better examples of the genre. At two hours and twenty minutes, it should feel longer than it does, but it definitely starts to wear out its welcome in in the third act. There isn't anything particularly bad about it; Red Sparrow is eminently watchable in that Francis Lawrence sort of way that even made the last two Hunger Games films watchable even as the script foundation crumbled below them. Its twists and double crosses keep you entertained, but it’s a fleeting experience, one that is bound to fade away in no time once you leave the theater. When looking for a pulpy, exploitative spy flick, you can do much worse than Red Sparrow, but you can do a fair bit better as well.