Red Sparrow pits Russian operatives against American spies

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In the film Red Sparrow, Russian espionage has not been pacified since the Cold War’s end. A select group of infiltrators — Sparrows — remain key components to the Kremlin’s political machine.These operatives, their bodies and their minds, belong to the state; but while loyalty is so often derived from patriotism, it may also stem from the cold barrel of a gun. For ex-ballerina Dominika Egorova, played by Jennifer Lawrence, her true loyalties are the only remaining variable in a life otherwise manufactured by the hammer and sickle.

Directed by Francis Lawrence, Red Sparrow has an eye-catching premise, but much like the encounters within the film itself, the attraction is only skin-deep.

The plot perpetuates the whack-a-mole trend of recent spy films, pitting Dominika against American agent Nathaniel Nash, played by Joel Edgerton.

The infiltration of a mole is the plot’s catalyst — he has been compromised, catalyzing a manhunt that brings these two forces together, redefining the “greater good” of king and country.

After a seemingly freak accident ruins Dominika’s career as a ballerina, her uncle, Vanya Egorov, a power-hungry politician played by Matthias Schoenaerts, offers her a means of salvaging her fractured life. Playing the honey trap, Dominika lures a political enemy to his death.

The man in question is killed, but not before he forcibly rapes her. After the man is garroted, Dominika is given a choice between a similar execution and a new life within the secret organization of Sparrows.

Dominika then becomes a political prisoner bred into a sleeper agent. It is immediately clear that she has forfeited her life to be a pawn in her uncle’s political games. Whether Dominika plans to assimilate or defect becomes the crux of Red Sparrow’s plotline.

The protagonist’s time in the Sparrow training facilities is as formative an experience as the opening half of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The individual is stripped away and the body recycled into the Kremlin’s war machine as a sangfroid killer. Here, Dominika meets Matron, played by Charlotte Rampling, the personification of the program the former has been roped into.

Dominika’s training proves to be the double-edged sword of Red Sparrow’s narrative, however. There are times when gratuity can be tasteful, and other times when the heavy-handed nature of a situation molests the audience. This largely concerns the liberal use of nudity to dehumanize the trainees; Sparrows are expected to sleep with informants for the good of the state, so sexual manipulation is paramount.

In Dominika’s case, such scenes do little to liberate her.

During one segment after Dominika fends off a rapist, the Matron commands her to have intercourse with the very same man in front of a classroom of her peers. This is of course a ludicrous proposition, a nail-biter to be sure — only nothing comes of it.

The rapist is not aroused, cannot reciprocate and just like that, the scene ends. The moral was that some men find pleasure in power; class dismissed.

Moments like these do push the boundaries of what an audience can tolerate, and duly characterize the Sparrow program, but they fall short of being as ruthless as intended.

Clearly, the most shocking possibility would have been for Lawrence to facilitate intercourse with this monster and prove herself emotionally detached from such sexual encounters, but by calling the bluff, there is no greater understanding of Dominika’s character.

There is also an issue of accents. While it is admirable that Lawrence suffers through a Russian accent for two and a half hours of screen time, the rest of the “Russian” cast members slip in and out of theirs like a lucid dream.

General Korchnoi, played by Jeremy Irons, is most guilty of this phonetic treason. It is only after a thoughtful puff on his cigarette that he seems to remember he is impersonating a Russian general. His character is especially two-dimensional, yet inexplicably linked to Dominika’s quest for the Kremlin mole.

Surprisingly, all the split ends of this story come together to weave a satisfying ending. Despite the disappointing nature of the mole revealing himself — which should not be mistaken for a plot twist — once the reveal happens, the ball rests squarely in Dominika’s court, and it is rewarding to watch everybody get their comeuppance.

Of course, there is also a love story shoehorned in, as surely as there are credits at the end of the movie. Nate Nash — which may be the most stereotypical American name after John Doe and Jack Daniels — falls for Dominika and makes it his mission to extract her from the lion’s den she is entrenched in.

Outside of some catchy piano music, their companionship is lackluster and fails to anchor Dominika’s allegiances to any greater purpose.

In many ways, Red Sparrow feels like the spiritual predecessor to David Leitch’s Atomic Blonde: there are moles coming out of the woodwork, sexy femme fatales dressed in black with blond highlights and empowering fight scenes.

It has all been done before, but that does not mean Red Sparrow is a waste of anyone’s time.

It is just a shame that Lawrence created a “fire and forget” film that seems unlikely to be heard from again. But perhaps that is for the best.