Red Sparrow, which comes from Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence, initially looks like a La Femme Nikita knock-off with a troubled young woman recruited by the government to train as a secret operative. Refreshingly, this modern cold war drama leans more toward the slow-burn intrigue of Jean le Carre than it does an action exploitation piece.
Jennifer Lawrence leads an impressive cast as Dominika Egorova a star of the Bolshoi Ballet whose life is shattered when an injury ends her career. Desperate to care for get ailing mother she accepts an offer from creepy uncle and government spook Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) to join a secret program called ‘the Sparrows’. With faint echoes of the assassin program in Zoolander, attractive young men and women are trained in various espionage skills, most notably the ability to endure weird and brutal humiliation and sell themselves as seducers.
This is where the film departs will depart from many audience-members’ expectations as the recruits are not trained as the sort of ninja-like assassins we saw in Nikita or a more comical film like The Kingsman. Instead, the skills they acquire are subtle and psychological and involve a more intimate relationship with their human targets. When Dominika is despatched to Budapest to try and uncover a Russian Secret Service mole she becomes entangled with CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who has been working with that mole and soon she faces the potentially deadly choice of which side she really wants to be on.
As in most grim espionage thrillers, the plot of Red Sparrow inevitably becomes very convoluted as Dominika deals with double agents, multiple deceptions and assorted red herrings but thankfully it never becomes unbearably messy or incoherent like some spy thrillers.
The film is built around Jennifer Lawrence’s performance and she impresses once again as the tough, but compassionate Dominika. She isn’t a Charlize Theron Atomic Blonde killing machine, instead she’s meant to be a more nuanced and vulnerable character and Lawrence succeeds in making her both fiercely determined and calculating but also sympathetic.
With striking cinematography from Jo Willems who lensed the Hunger Games films and fine use of locations – particularly the architectural wonders of Budapest – this is a visually stunning film.
Squeamish viewer should be warned there are violent, gory and even shocking sequences here as double agents are exposed and incur the wrath of the Sparrow’s cruellest assassin Simyonov (Sergev Onopko). Despite this, those expecting a Bond-like thrill ride may be disappointed by the leisurely pace at which the story unspools.
Those who enjoy their espionage movies more nuanced, restrained and artfully constructed will be seduced by Red Sparrow.
Nick’s rating: ***1/2
Genre: Cold war spy thriller/ action/ drama.
Director(s): Francis Lawrence.
Release date: 2nd March 2018.
Running time: 141 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show