Pro tip: For maximum enjoyment, watch Red Sparrow for the movie it is, instead of the movie you wanted it to be. The new spy thriller based on the first entry from former CIA operative Jason Matthews’ best-selling trilogy of dark, sexually charged novels, stars Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a Russian ex-Bolshoi ballerina with an ailing mother (Jolie Richardson) in need of medical care. Dominika gets seduced by her intelligence agent uncle Vanya (a slyly sexual Matthias Schoenaerts playing “Uncle Vanya”, get it?) into become a trainee in a secret government school for beautiful young women and men, “Sparrows,” who graduate as unstoppable sex machines, master manipulators and oh, yeah–deadly assassins.

Their instructors, who submit them to grueling physical and mental tortures, include a chilly matron (Charlotte Rampling in full-on Lotte Lenya of From Russia With Love mode) who tells them their bodies are now state property, and makes the students strip naked or perform sex acts while others watch. “It’s just flesh,” she intones, and later talks about Russia’s ultimate target—America—as weak and rife for conquest. After all, she observes, it’s a country “that only cares about shopping and social media.” Could the observation be any more pointedly topical or relevant at the moment?

Dominika’s story is intercut with that of endangered CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), up to his neck in danger and intrigue once local police track down his major source of Russian intelligence. Naturally, the paths of Dominika and Nathaniel are fated to cross, and they do, in every conceivable way; he wants her in his bed and on America’s side. But is he just playing her, or she him?

Jennifer Lawrence is aces and in full Movie Star mode. Even though she and Joel Edgerton generate few sparks, the movie is full of pleasures.

The premise may scream overheated, over-the-top globe-hopping silliness, but Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe (A Cure for Wellness) appear to have no time for fun or lightness, let alone camp. Their take on the material is grim, brutal and sexual, and as Jennifer Lawrence’s charismatic, intelligent, deliberately enigmatic performance indicates, the twisty, double cross-filled conspiracy thriller is played for deadly seriousness—and clearly, for ardent hopes for a franchise.

Jennifer Lawrence is aces and in full Movie Star mode. Even though she and Edgerton generate few sparks, the movie is full of pleasures. Mary-Louise Parker turns up in a brief but pivotal role as a boozy Washington hack and gives it such a quirky, winking spin that she almost suggests she finds the plot’s cat-and-mouse mechanics faintly ridiculous. Meanwhile, Jo Willems’ cinematography is lush, elegant and neo-noirish, and James Newton Howard’s symphonic score generates stirrings of swank, romantic old-Hollywood glam.

Red Sparrow may not be as funny, grabby, tense or intelligent as it could have been. For one thing, it violates a Hitchcock rule for great espionage films: It talks too much, and too often tells rather than shows. Still, it’s a slick, well-appointed and surprisingly nasty piece of work for most of its 139-minute running time.

Red Sparrow

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