Times change, opinions waver and reputations wax and wane, so it’s tricky to try to figure out which movies will age well.
Here’s a bold prediction: “Red Sparrow” won’t.
Oh, it’s an OK film — a big production with a major star, lots of intrigue and violence and sexual politics, so it’ll be taken seriously, at least for a while. But not too long.
I’m not certain when I came to this conclusion, but I suspect it was when Jennifer Lawrence’s character, in a Russian accent, said, “You zent me to whore school!”
Yeah, that had to be it.
Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, prima ballerina for the Bolshoi, favorite of the state. Until, that is, she suffers a horrific injury during a performance. Francis Lawrence, who directed Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) in the last three “Hunger Games” films, delights in squirmy gross-out shots of her mangled leg and the operation that fixes it.
Dominika is left hobbled and worried; her dancing meant the state provided an apartment and medical care for her and her ailing mother, Nina (Joely Richardson). Now what?
Enter icky Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking muckety-muck with the Russian foreign intelligence service. All she has to do is switch out the cellphone of some creepy guy. It turns out there is a lot more to it than that, that Vanya wasn’t exactly honest in his description of the mission. But Dominika handles herself well and is given a choice: Join the intelligence service as a “Red Sparrow” — young, attractive men and women who use their training and, more specifically, their sexuality to get information — or see the state’s medical assistance for her mother dry up.
Thus, as Dominika puts it, whore school.
Charlotte Rampling is suitably stern and unforgiving as the Matron, who leads the trainees through their paces, which include stripping in front of the class, engaging in sex acts and being subjected to various forms of humiliation. Your body is a tool of the state, the perpetually dour Matron explains. Sex means nothing. It’s a way to get information, nothing more.
The sex is difficult to process, which is the intention. Yes, Sparrows use it as a weapon, but Dominkia isn’t exactly there by choice.
The set-up is actually more interesting than the payoff. Dominika is plucked from school to get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) — these names, boy — a CIA agent who is working with a mole inside the Russian intelligence agency. She is to use all the tools of her training, of course, to identify the mole.
From there the film, based on Jason Matthews’ bestseller, becomes a game of will she or won’t she. Not will she have sex with Nate. Of course she will. The larger question is: Will she remain loyal to Russia, or can Nate turn her? There are plenty of surprises, but if you pile twist upon twist eventually you’re just going in circles. At some points the film becomes an exercise in cleverness.
But it has things to recommend it, starting with Lawrence. She’s playing someone dead inside, so it’s a muted performance. But she’s a star, pure and simple, and commands the screen. It doesn’t mean she can cook up much chemistry with Edgerton, but she’s still fascinating to watch. The most enjoyable scenes are the ones where he knows that she knows that he knows and vice versa, so we don’t have to wade through needless discovery. We can cut right to the chase of wondering which way she’ll go — we’re in the same boat Nash is.
There are also some terrific supporting turns. The reliably excellent Bill Camp plays an agent itching to take Nash’s spot, and he’s not shy about telling him. Jeremy Irons has fun with the role of a Russian general, even if at one point he just decides to pretty much drop the accent and use his British one. Who’s going to question Jeremy Irons?
Best of all, as ever, is the great Mary-Louise Parker, who plays the boozy chief of staff for a U.S. senator. I don’t know what the plot would be, exactly, but I’d happily watch an entire movie of her sloshing through her messy life.
But that’s another film. This one, “Red Sparrow,” isn’t as fun as that one would be, but then again it doesn’t want to be fun. It wants to be oh-so-serious, and it never lets us forget how hard it’s trying.
Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network
20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Francis Lawrence and written by Justin Haythe, based on the book by Jason Matthews. Rated R (for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity). Running time: 140 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.