It’s March, plenty of time for Jennifer Lawrence to separate herself from her last acting effort, the polarizing mother! Her follow up is the spy thriller Red Sparrow, which was written by Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness) and directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation). Although it’s not a bad film, Red Sparrow adds nothing new to the spy genre, especially if you watch FX’s The Americans regularly.

With the recent release of Atomic Blonde, Red Sparrow follows the same general outline (spy film with a female protagonist). But there are differences – if you strip away the action, lose the neon lighting and turn the protagonist’s background from jaded spy to origin story of an unwilling but desperate woman, you get Red Sparrow. Lawrence plays Dominika, a Bolshoi ballerina who suffers a gruesome career-ending injury during a performance. Now unemployed and faced with losing her home and medical care for her mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika turns to her slimy uncle Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking Russian intelligence officer. He essentially coerces Dominika into becoming a spy, but the rub is that she’s naturally good at it.

To make sure everyone understands, Russian spies (known as sparrows) are specially trained to use any means to attract targets and extract intel. The biggest “weapon” they have in their arsenal is their bodies – sparrows turn it up sexually to satisfy their targets so they’ll let their guard down. Dominika, a beautiful creature with a mean streak, has the innate ability to read people to determine their wants and needs. Ivan sees that and knows that she would be able to accomplish any mission assigned to her. With that, Red Sparrow is more subversive than immersive and is the reason why it’s a thriller more so than actioner.

Dominika’s spy training is interesting since she specifically refers to it as “whore school.” But after a short stint in sparrow school she’s pulled out and assigned to win the trust of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA operative. Dominika’s superiors are looking for specific info, and of course Dominika will use everything at her disposal to work Nate. But as all spy films go nothing is ever as it seems and no one should be trusted, not even Dominika.

For me, I found Red Sparrow to be mostly boring and typical fare. With a running time of 140 minutes, there are lulls which come full of overused spy thriller tropes. With the lack of action, Francis Lawrence relied on the story, some chilling violence, and his cast, which includes Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Charlotte Rampling, Bill Camp and Sakina Jeffery. And in what should turn out to be a memorable cameo, Mary-Louise Parker shows up to add a little excitement and humor. As far as performances are concerned, that’s solid, but none of the cast was able to make up for the film’s deliberate pace and unoriginal content. Things do pick up during the third act, so it’s up to viewers to decide if the wait is worth it.

What’s interesting to note is the love story that forms between Dominika and Nate. Since seduction and sexuality are a major part of a sparrow’s repertoire, it’s easy to come in knowing there’d be fireworks between the pair. Sadly, though, there’s no chemistry and it’s bad enough to believe that that story angle was shoehorned in. That lack of chemistry allows viewers to pick up on Sparrow’s twists - not a good thing for a spy film.

Luckily, though, J.Law came through with a good performance. She obviously has a natural charisma which makes Red Sparrow bearable, and in some ways this is a risky role. I originally found it difficult buying Lawrence as a ballerina and a spy, but she’s able to turn on the charm throughout (and her Russian accent is surprisingly serviceable). I found myself more and more intrigued with Dominka. The overall story became secondary (besides, just how old and overused is the “America, good/Russia, bad” trope at this point?) as I only wanted to know Dominika’s fate. I think if audiences are burnt out from Jennifer Lawrence seemingly being everywhere, they will either see this performance as further proof of that or realize that with this strong turn she’s everywhere for this very reason.

Ultimately, Red Sparrow is fine. With Jennifer Lawrence on board it succeeds at entertaining even though there are plenty of better spy films. The most interesting thing is that if you look hard enough you’ll notice how Dominika’s life mirrors Lawrence’s real life. But this isn’t an art imitating life film and it’s not intended to be, yet it adds some value to an otherwise straightforward espionage film that wants to be slick and smart.

3 stars out of 5


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