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Movie Review: Jennifer Lawrence Doesn't Soar in Spy Flick 'Red Sparrow'


Published March 7, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated March 14, 2018 at 1:30 p.m.

Red Sparrow is many things. Regrettably, a good movie isn't one of them. It's also not a timely movie, an innovative, genre-stretching movie, a zeitgeisty movie or a movie whose two-hour-and-20-minute running time can be considered anything but cruel and unusual.

It is, paradoxically, a movie that does zero to advance the professional standing of Jennifer Lawrence while, at the same time, facilitating a profoundly vital psychological corrective for the Oscar winner. An artist's private and public lives can affect each other in myriad ways. The symbiosis may have never played out in quite this fashion before. More on this shortly.

Red Sparrow is also the only movie I've seen based on a book that was reviewed by the CIA: a 2013 spy thriller by retired CIA officer Jason Matthews, the first of a trilogy. The resulting film is set in the present, focuses on cat-and-mouse games played by U.S. and Russian intelligence services, and features a degree of graphic nudity all but unprecedented in a major studio's wide release.

That may explain the conclusion the agency reached in its review: "The movie ... will undoubtedly influence perceptions of the CIA for a wide swath of Americans, including among them future applicants."

Translation: Lawrence stars as ballerina-turned-secret agent Dominika Egorova. She's trained to use sex as a weapon at a facility loosely based on the Sparrow School the Soviets ran during the '60s and '70s. Joel Edgerton plays CIA operative Nate Nash, her target. She uses sex as a weapon against him. A lot. Langley's reviewers evidently theorized that their steamy international relations could make serving one's country look like way more fun than traditional recruitment methods ever suggested.

What they didn't foresee was writer Justin Haythe and director Francis Lawrence (the second through fourth The Hunger Games) gutting the source material of everything that distinguished it. Matthews' portrait of the low-key, non-Bondian nature of real-life tradecraft is nowhere to be found. Everywhere, instead, are thinly written characters, bad Russian accents, gratuitous torture scenes and agents becoming double agents, then triple agents, without generating an iota of suspense or excitement.

This is an espionage saga so implausible, listlessly dull and glacially paced that even supporting talent like Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons and Ciarán Hinds can't breathe life into it. Lawrence herself is so cluelessly utilized, her character so clumsily written, even she proves a Russian not worth investigation.

Of greater significance is what's going on here with Lawrence the human being. The actress was devastated by a 2014 phone hack that leaked private nude photos to the internet, calling it a "sexual violation." "I can't even describe ... what it feels like to have my naked body shoot across the world ... for a profit," she told Vanity Fair.

As I watched Lawrence perform by far the most revealing scenes of her career, I wondered whether the hack and the decision to do this film were linked, whether the images on the screen reflected a desire to undo the violation by offering now what was stolen then.

The movie shoots her naked body across the world again, but this time on her terms. One feels less objectified, I expect, when the decision and the millions are one's own.

Driving home from the screening, I doubted I'd end up mentioning my hypothesis here. Readers might misunderstand and take offense. Then research revealed that Lawrence has commented on the subject and, guess what — I wasn't far off. Finally, something about Red Sparrow that didn't disappoint.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Red Sparrow"

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