Just like the spy work it celebrates and likely exaggerates, “Red Sparrow” can be pretty messy.
Based on the 2013 best-selling thriller of the same name by a career CIA man, Jason Matthews, “Red Sparrow” features characters making predictable and reckless choices. And none is more reckless than the story’s central figure, a dancer-turned-operative portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence.
While that can be frustrating, “Red Sparrow” is undeniably addictive with director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer) pulling you into Matthews’ world of Cold War-era espionage and ensuring you stay engaged with its twisty-turny trappings.
You’re likely to enjoy “Red Sparrow,” but, much like Lawrence’s heroine, you may not feel great about yourself in the process.
We are introduced to her Dominika Egorova hours before she is to perform a lead part in a big performance by Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet. She is at home with her ill mother (Joely Richardson), who, because of her daughter’s status with The Bolshoi Theatre, is enjoying decent medical care.
We also meet Nate Nash (Joel Egerton), a U.S. operative in Moscow, who at this same time is receiving a coded message detailing where and when to meet a high-level Russian contact.
Just before his rendezvous with his contact in Moscow’s Gorky Park, Nate is spooked when he sees a police car approaching his source. Feeling the man’s identity must be protected at all costs, he fires off his gun several times to draw the attention of the police, whom he leads away from his source and ultimately evades himself.
It’s bad news for Nate as it was a false alarm, the police having no interest in the man.
“You can bet your ass they’re looking for him now,” one of Nate’s superiors (Bill Camp, “The Night Of”) later admonishes him.
Things get even worse that night for Dominika, who suffers a devastating injury on stage due to an apparent mistake by the male lead.
Three months later, she is smoking and using a cane to walk, her ballet career seemingly a thing of the past. Worse, her mother soon will have to rely on state medical care and the pair will lose their apartment, controlled by the theater. However, Dominika’s uncle, the government-employed Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts), offers a solution, if a not-so-appealing one: become a spy for her country.
Reluctantly, she accept an assignment to get close to an important man she met the night of her final performance at the ballet and try to extract important information from him.
“How do you expect me to win his trust,” she asks her uncle.
“You’ve always known how to put on a show,” he responds.
Let’s just say things do not go exactly as she’d plan once she has the man alone in a hotel room.
Eventually, Dominika agrees to become a so-called “Sparrow,” a woman trained in psychological manipulation and to use her sexuality — and her body — to acquire information.
“Every human being is a puzzle of need,” she is told by her instructor, Matron (Charlotte Rampling of “45 Years,” making an impression in a minor role). “You must become the missing piece.”
Following some uncomfortable scenes at Sparrow school — make no mistake, this film is selling more than a bit of salaciousness — Dominika is sent into the field with a new identity.
It isn’t until about 50 minutes into the film that her path finally crosses with Nate’s, the pair bound to become entangled and take us through a fairly typical dance designed to keep us guessing about who can trust whom and the like.
As adapted by Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”), “Red Sparrow” goes about that somewhat clumsily, Dominika’s motivations often seeming a bit too obvious. She also doesn’t appear to be that great at spycraft, despite other characters regularly telling her she is.
“Red Sparrow” is a bit better at keeping us guessing as to the identity of the Russian mole, with two other high-ranking officials being portrayed by equally capable “Justice League” alums Ciarán Hinds (“Silence”) and Jeremy Irons (“Race”).
Mary Louise Parker (“Weeds”) also makes an appearance, of over-the-top variety, as the boozing chief of staff for a U.S. politician willing to sell highly sensitive information to the Russians.
And, while nicely paced, “Red Sparrow” itself is just a bit too over-the-top as directed by Lawrence. The tone he establishes is probably just a bit too serious considering some of the goings-on in the story.
Having directed Jennifer Lawrence in the final three “Hunger Games” films, the male Lawrence clearly has the endorsement of the star, who gives him a mostly successful performance. Even as “Red Sparrow” shows increasing signs it will fall out of the air, the lady Lawrence is not the problem.
Meanwhile, Edgerton — who, covered in makeup to portray an orc, gave the standout performance in Netflix’s recent bizarre Will Smith-starring cop-fantasy mashup “Bright” — offers a merely garden-variety effort here.
More memorable is Schoenaerts (“The Danish Girl”), who makes it very difficult to truly decipher Ivan’s intentions when it comes to his niece.
With its relatively heavy dose of edge-pushing sexual content, “Red Sparrow” seems a little too interested in titillating than telling a great story. However, it will keep you guessing, at least to a degree, until the final credits, which a movie like this must do to be successful.
‘Red Sparrow’In theaters: March 2.
Rated: R for strong violence, torture, sexual content, language and some graphic nudity.
Runtime: 2 hours, 20 minutes.Stars (of four): 2.5.