Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Charlotte Rampling
Directed by: Francis Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”)
Written by: Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”)
While the French term “femme fatale” can be traced back to the early 20th century, the archetype — a dangerous woman who uses her beauty, charm and sexuality to tempt her lovers into deadly situations — has been around for centuries. From the Greek mythological references of the Sirens, who lured sailors to their watery graves, to Biblical figures like Delilah, whose betrayal led to Samson’s enucleation and ultimate death, the femme fatale has taken on many forms in literature, art and other mediums.
In cinema, however, is when the typified seductress has really shined over the last century. Whether she is defined for audiences by Rita Hayworth as the hair-flipping title character in the 1946 noir “Gilda” or by Scarlett Johansson as an irresistible, ethereal being in the 2013 sci-fi drama “Under the Skin,” male film characters have had plenty to concern themselves over when a potential love interest starts batting her eyelashes or — as Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence (“Silver Linings Playbook”) does in her new spy thriller — bares all for the uncomfortable assignment at hand.
In “Red Sparrow,” which is adapted from the 2013 novel of the same name by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, a Russian prima ballerina who experiences a career-ending injury, which puts her sick mother at risk since no job equals no health insurance. In steps Dominika’s slimy, well-connected uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) who forces her to join an intelligence program known as “Sparrow School,” so she can train to become a spy and learn how to weaponize her body and sweet-talk secrets from unsuspecting men. Her main mission: to cozy up to CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is caught up in some Trump administration-level Russian-American relations, and — ahem — persuade him to reveal the identity of a mole with whom he has been working.
Lawrence reteams with filmmaker Francis Lawrence, who directed her in three of the four “Hunger Games” movies, and depicts her provocative albeit exploited character with realism and sexual prowess. Although she’s had a chance to stretch her man-eating muscles in the past as Mystique in the “X-Men” franchise, her role as Dominika is the most audacious of her career and one that she puts some definite enthusiasm behind. Lawrence owns the role as a honey trap and takes it as far as she’s allowed.
The major problem with “Red Sparrow,” however, is the slow-burning script adapted by screenwriter Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”) that desperately wants to be a sexually charged version of a John le Carré story. But where recent films like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “A Most Wanted Man” are absorbing, smartly crafted espionage dramas, “Red Sparrow” only manages to bring the same amount of intrigue in short bursts and does so without making any significant statements about the current political landscape, despite how deeply ingrained the Russian narrative is in today’s 24-hour news cycle.
One of the segments that works is the time Dominika spends inside the Sparrow School, where she is humiliated by a ruthless schoolmarm (Charlotte Rampling) and told that her body now belongs to the state. To call it a nightmare scenario is an understatement, and director Lawrence captures the disturbing nature of the school with authenticity. Actually, his take on the full world Dominika inhabits is noteworthy, too. The film is set in present time, but the Cold War-era ambiance fills each scene with an unsympathetic and disconnected quality that’s as thick as the snow in a Moscow winter.
Still, the film’s deception and manipulation, even while between the thighs of J-Law, is somewhat of a dull affair and one that is running counter to the idea that using sex as an element of female empowerment only works when the character isn’t forced into the position to survive. Sure, the style and skin might be present, but without any sociopolitical thrills, “Red Sparrow” never really takes flight.