“The Cold War never ended, it just fragmented,” recited a squinting and severe Charlotte Rampling as The Matron, the primary instructor of the Sparrow spy school, in front of her new class with a voice that’s sharp and full of the knowledge that this speech works in a deep and practiced rote. “Every human being is a puzzle of need. You must become that missing piece.”
How did Dominika Egorova, a blonde Jennifer Lawrence with bangs in a perennially sorrowful expression, end up in this hellish co-ed spy school full of rapey studs and a dehumanizing, brutal curriculum?
It’s unfortunate that Red Sparrow will be remembered more for the graphic sexual scenes and nudity from it’s A-list stars, rather than how it harnesses an excellent vintage espionage movie feel full of ultra-violence, depictions of torture, strong language, and a genuine spy-thriller story that takes us behind the post-Cold War curtain, not of the CIA, but of the SVR—the Russian secret service.
The spectacle of bare tits and asses may attract the R-16 crowd to the theaters, but the thrills and carnage are real: Almost all the torture techniques depicted, like skin-peeling and classic water torture in poses of humiliating bondage, are as eye-bleed personal and bile-rising as you can imagine.
Quite a few will also notice that the most torturous aspect of watching this is J-law struggling with her Muscovite accent, sounding patchy and hoarse one scene, on point the next, and downright caricaturish in a couple.
A pity since her body language, her athletic physique (see swimsuit photo above), and everything else on the non-speech thespian side are on point, as are her esteemed supporting co-stars Jeremy Irons (as General Vladimir Andreievich Korchnoi), Ciaran Hinds (as Colonel Alexei Ivanovich Zyuganov), and the earnest-faced Joel Edgerton (as CIA agent Nate Nash)
The transformation of Egorova into a Sparrow begins at a performance where she is the prima ballerina, fawned on by wealthy patrons and envied by her fellow dancers. That night, though, her male dance partner falls the wrong way, lands on her shin, breaks her leg, and spells the end of her career in tutus.
With a sick mother and the State threatening to pull Egorova’s government-owned housing from under them, she turns to her dear Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) in the secret service, who jumps at the chance to recruit her nubile niece to run a short mission for him. With said mission yielding disastrous results, Egorova is forced to take door number 3 instead of a firing squad: joining the secret service, unwillingly enrolled in an elite spy academy where students are taught to seduce, trained as agents for psychological manipulation in a global struggle for power.
Soon after graduating from what she fondly calls “whore school,” Egorova is tasked to ingratiate herself into the life of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a C.I.A. agent whom the SVR are keeping tabs on for a covert operation gone bad a few years back. And, what do you know? He just popped back on the grid in Eastern Europe.
As Egorova and Nash play their cards in the game of clandestine operations, double and triple dealing occurs, new covers are created as some are blown, and through it all the two struggle against the growing fondness they have for each other that surmounts their training and the orders of the countries they serve. The action, when it does happen, is explosive, nail-biting, and nerve-wracking.
Based on the novels by true blue former CIA agent Jason Matthews, the movie conjures the feel and vibe of similar filmic adaptations of the works by Graham Greene, Frederick Forsyth, and John le Carre: good old trade craft, punctuated by moments of clusterfuck, and the occasional beauty of an operation that’s perfectly executed.
Director Francis Lawrence, with whom J-Law worked with before (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), handles the slow grind of the espionage game with equal delicacy as the perverse and sadistic scenes for an equilibrium that makes this not just a great espionage film, but also a restoration of power of J-Law’s ability to bare herself by choice, post-Fappening.
Red Sparrow is like the Black Widow-origins movie we’ve always wanted but never knew we’d get this early. It’s definitely for adults only and it comes at a perfect time when the US and Russia connection is in the news and alluring to conspiracists.
The genuine excitement of who will recruit whom between Nate and Dominika, the underlying deception implicit in all spy dealings, the fascinating clandestine techniques (Matthews says they’re the genuine article) employed, and the human aspect of being under deep cover for extreme lengths of time make this requisite viewing for those enamored of the spy genre.
Watch it for Comrade Katniss. Watch it because the Cold War never ended.
“Red Sparrow” is showing on February 28, rated R-16 with no cuts.
All photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox