'Red Sparrow'

With a cast like Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Charlotte Rampling, somebody somewhere thought Red Sparrow was going to be special.

Unfortunately, they thought wrong. Too often lurid for the sake of being lurid, the Francis Lawrence-helmed spy thriller ultimately collapses under the weight of so many plot twists. There’s the core of a decent story in there, but nobody can find it in time. And given that the movie is 140 minutes long, they had plenty of chances to try.

Lawrence stars as Dominika, a famed Russian ballerina who breaks her leg in what seems like a tragic onstage accident. Her uncle Ivan (Schoenaerts), a high-ranking government official, bullies her down a new path: become “special” again and join the Sparrows, a seduction-centric spy organization. After detailed training from the preternaturally composed Matron (Rampling), she’s off to Budapest to outfox CIA agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) and find a mole in the Russian ranks. But of course, the question arises: which side is she actually on?

It’s pretty standard fare, although Dominika’s seduction training raises the first hour to standout status. Such a brazen depiction of sexual manipulation is certainly eyebrow raising, but even more so is Lawrence’s ambiguity as Dominika. She’s a natural seductress but can’t—or won’t—let go of her morals, which makes any attempts to break and mold her that much more enticing. It’s engagingly complex; it also quickly becomes an afterthought.

That cast, though. As always, Lawrence is terrific; she’s fearless on-screen, in by far her most exposed role to date, and can leap back and forth from “incredibly frightened” to “steely and confident” with earnest ease. Edgerton adds another strong performance to a surprisingly versatile and lengthy resume, and Schoenaerts seems right on the cusp of a Fassbender-esque breakout. Somebody give this guy a meaty leading man part.

And the high-level stars are only the tip of the iceberg; we’ve got Mary-Louise Parker. We’ve got Ciaran Hinds. We’ve got Joely Richardson and perhaps the best character actor working today, Bill Camp. Of course, nobody is given much to do, but it’s nice to see them hamming it up and hopefully collecting healthy checks.

Again, either Francis Lawrence and writer Justin Haythe had something magical on paper, or the producers ponied up for big names to give Red Sparrow that showroom shine. Either way, the end result proves far from memorable. This is the kind of movie where a character literally stands up and announces, “Yes, it’s me. I’m the mole.” Subtlety is all but tossed out the window, which helps the first 60 minutes but turns the final 80 into quite a slog.

Francis Lawrence can boast a halfway-decent filmography, including Constantine, I Am Legend, and numerous Hunger Games movies. And he should be commended for getting Jennifer Lawrence to take on such an edgy role, not to mention pulling together this oft-aforementioned wonderful cast. They give the material some needed gravitas, but Irons, Schoenaerts, and Camp can only do so much. Sparrow ends up being faux-highbrow shlock, pushing the envelope when a big red sign that says PUSH ENVELOPE NOW clicks on. It’s paint-by-numbers sexy spy stuff, with some extra titillation throw in for good measure. If that sounds like your bag, go nuts, but it's been done better before.