I’m sorry, “Red Sparrow,” but you can’t just throw out a brilliantly terrible line like “You sent me to whore school!” — spit out angrily by Jennifer Lawrence, in a Russian accent, no less — and then not live up to that level of wildness for your entire running time. Neither intelligent enough to be involving nor fun enough to be trashy, this is a movie that would only work if it were a little worse or a lot better.
As it is, Lawrence’s reunion with director Francis Lawrence (the second through fourth “Hunger Games” movies) does at least amp up the sex and violence in an attempt to cover up the fact that the story feels grafted together from any number of spy sagas, not to mention the USSR flashbacks from “The Americans” and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Ultimately, this brand of dazzle camouflage is no more successful than casting Aussie actor Joel Edgerton as CIA agent Nate Nash (no, really) to make it less noticeable that most of the Russians are played by Americans, Brits and Belgians. “Red Sparrow” is the sort of sumptuous, globe-trotting production that takes us to the Bolshoi, Budapest and London — not to mention the aforementioned “whore school,” where would-be spies are trained to be both deadly and seductive — but it’s the sort of listless affair where it’s easy to tune out and start noticing locations from other movies. (Ooo, it’s the apartment where Melissa McCarthy fights that guy in “Spy”!)
Jennifer Lawrence stars as Dominika, a star ballet dancer whose career is cut short by an onstage calamity. Faced with losing her Bolshoi-provided apartment, as well as health care for her sick mom Nina (Joely Richardson), Dominika accepts an assignment from her creepy uncle Vanya (no, really) a higher-up in the intelligence service. Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) sends Dominika to seduce an oligarch and steal his cell phone, but when the man tries to rape her, a mysterious intruder enters the hotel room and murders him.
Now that she’s a witness, Dominika has the choice of being killed or joining the government’s “Sparrow” program for sexy secret agents. Matron (Charlotte Rampling) tells Dominika she’ll have some catching up to do, since her classmates are mostly military-trained, but the former dancer takes an abbreviated curriculum (or maybe the editing badly conveys the passage of time) before she’s sent out into the field to find the identity of the Russian mole who’s feeding intel to Nate Nash.
The Russians think that Dominika can be trusted (particularly after they torture her at one point), and the Americans suspect they can turn Dominika for their own purposes, but she clearly has an agenda of her own. The screenplay by Justin Haythe (“A Cure for Wellness”), based on the novel by Jason Matthews, focuses on the double-crosses and on Dominika and Nate’s relationship, despite the fact that Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton have zero chemistry.
But the only plot of genuine interest involves Dominika getting herself and her mother out from under the thumb of her uncle, who clearly has quasi-incestuous designs on his niece.
It also doesn’t help that the film is so desperate to be taken seriously. Any movie that is clearly grafting Jennifer Lawrence’s face onto a pirouetting ballerina’s body, or taking the actress from brunette to blonde with one box of Hungarian drugstore hair dye, could easily tip into delicious campiness; Rampling’s Lotte Lenya realness suggests she knows what this silly saga should be, as do the winking turns by Mary-Louise Parker as a boozy American turncoat and Jeremy Irons as a steely general.
Had “Red Sparrow” dared to have a little fun along the way, this hard-R thriller might actually have thrilled.