[Screen It]

(2018) (Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: With her ballerina days unexpectedly over, a young woman becomes a covert spy for the Russian government and infiltrates the life of a CIA agent in hopes of uncovering the identity of a high-ranking Russian mole.
Dominika Egorova (JENNIFER LAWRENCE) is the star ballerina of the Bolshoi ballet, but when her dance partner lands on her leg, her career abruptly ends. Her uncle, Vanya Egorov (MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS), deputy director of Russia's secret spy agency, SVR, informs her that the incident was no accident. And after seeing the aftermath of her violent retribution toward her former partner and rival, he believes she's the right fit to become part of the spy organization. With him saying he won't be able to ensure payments to take care of her mother and their housing, Dominika has no choice but to accept his offer.

She ends up at a special "sparrow" spy school where Matron (CHARLOTTE RAMPLING) teaches her and other recruits to lose all inhibitions and use both mental and sexual manipulation as a means to their spy ends. In Dominika's case, that's to infiltrate the life of CIA agent Nate Nash (JOEL EDGERTON) who fled Russia after protecting the identity of a high-ranking Russian mole from being revealed, something that isn't sitting well with Vanya's superiors, including Korchnoi (JEREMY IRONS) and Zakharov (CIARAN HINDS).

Nash is now operating in Budapest under the watchful eye of Marty Gable (BILL CAMP). Dominika moves there and shares a large apartment with a fellow spy, Marta (THEKLA REUTEN), who's working for their station chief, Maxim Volontov (DOUGLAS HODGE), to get American satellite intel from Stephanie Boucher (MARY-LOUISE PARKER), the chief of staff for a U.S. senator. From that point on, and with increasing perils facing both, Dominika and Nate enter a dangerous spy dance together where it's uncertain who's playing who and how things might turn out.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Since it's been part of the human condition for eons, it's no surprise that torture of one form or another shows up in movies (and I'm not referring to offerings that are so bad audiences feel as if they're the ones being abused). Of course, it's to be expected in the "torture porn" movies that I detest, as well as in horror films because, well, they're designed to be horrific.

But such scenes also appear in thrillers and otherwise straight-up dramas, and when they do, they're usually designed to do one of two things (and sometimes both concurrently). For some, the torture moments show just how horrible the antagonist is beyond being the default villain of the story. The worse they act in physically and/or psychologically abusing others, the more we want them to get their eventual comeuppance.

In other instances, such horrific moments are designed to show how tough, resilient or determined the protagonist is in going after his or her goal, and thus creates greater levels of sympathy and empathy between the hero and the viewer.

Considering what happens to Jennifer Lawrence's character in "Red Sparrow" at the hands of various characters, the latter could be so strong that audiences will want to, among other things, enroll her in the puppy and kitten of the month club in hopes of somewhat easing her pain.

In no particular order, she's raped once (and has her assailant murdered atop her), nearly raped again, has her leg brutally broken, other body parts later bashed with a club, endures the tied-up water torture treatment, and has a handgun placed to her head and the trigger pulled after watching the previous deadly results of the same on video. She's also marginalized by a steely female S&M spy instructor at what's later referred to as "whore school" where she's told her body is owned by the state, and is ordered to strip down and perform sex acts on classmates or strangers.

Then again, at one point she doles out some torture of her own -- arguably the most squirm-inducing of the film and what Alex from "A Clockwork Orange" once referred to as "a bit of the old ultra-violence" (although that now once shocking pic looks considerably tame in comparison) -- in a scene that will make you think twice when next using any sort of grater.

One can assume that the point of all of that -- in this adaption of former CIA operative Jason Matthews's 2013 novel of the same name (which I have not read) -- is showing the devaluation of women in post Cold War Russia and the resultant steps one brave -- and abused -- woman will take to break free from such misogynistic cultural confines.

Beyond that, it's your standard dramatic espionage thriller, albeit one that's a bit more brutal than most. And one with a reluctant and unlikely hero, something Lawrence is no stranger to playing ("The Hunger Games" series being the most recognized example of that). In fact, as the film opens, and with any advance knowledge of what sort of character the actress plays, you half-expect the ballerina-based intro to have her undercover in that role, followed by some sort of espionage related behavior and/or violence to break out.

Well, there is violence and a break, but it's of Dominika's leg courtesy of her dance partner, thus ending her famous career performing in the Bolshoi ballet. Being aware of her attractiveness and seeing how she deals with those who ruined her career -- in a new definition of "coitus interruptus" -- her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts) has her join Russia's SVR spy agency and attend "whore school" (her words after the fact) where she's trained by a woman (Charlotte Rampling) who likely moonlights as a dominatrix when not teaching the ways of psychological and sexual manipulation.

That's all so that green spy can infiltrate the life of a CIA agent (Joel Edgerton) who's been in contact with a high-ranking Russian mole who the likes of old school Russian spooks (played by Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hinds) would love to have identified. There's also a subplot about another spy (Thekla Reuten) and a boozy chief of staff (Mary-Louise Parker) for a U.S. Senator who's about to sell American intel for a briefcase full of cash that occasionally intersects with the main story.

With that long in the making setup -- courtesy of Justin Haythe's adaptation of Matthews' novel -- it's then a question of who's playing and seducing who. But as directed by Francis Lawrence, it's never as scintillating, engaging or entertaining as it might have sounded on paper.

To be clear, I was never bored at any moment, but beyond recoiling at the moments of torture, I didn't have much of any emotional reaction to the rest of the material. I'm guessing that's a good indicator for me, but maybe not so much for the film. "Red Sparrow" never really flies and thus rates as just a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 15, 2018 / Posted March 2, 2018

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