In books and cinema, the Cold War was the best war. It gave thriller writers like John le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith so much ammo, sending all those chilly spies shivering through Red Square and Gorky Park. The Cold War was easier to take than Vietnam (more manageable accents, fewer casualties) and in his 2013 book “Red Sparrow” author Jason Matthews tried to capture the wintry mastery of his forebears.
Having moved from directing music videos for Third Eye Blind to helming three movies in the “Hunger Games” series, Francis Lawrence is no stranger to tough conditions. And he must have a great relationship with his star Jennifer Lawrence, who is very game to play Dominika Egorova, the Red Sparrow, in the film adaptation of Matthews’s book.
The first sequence of the movie is the finest, continuity-cutting between Dominika, a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi performing Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” and CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who is rendezvousing with his Russian asset, codename Marble. Despite Dominika and Nate’s obvious talent at their jobs, quick cuts show things falling to pieces — his cover is blown so he runs for his life while her tibia is snapped by an errant leap from her partner.
From there the pacing slows considerably. Dominika recovers but will never dance again. Her uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts, who looks, we realize with a shudder, exactly like Vladimir Putin) is top brass in Russian intelligence and offers continued medical care for her poor mother (Joely Richardson) if Dominika agrees to attend “Sparrow School,” a place to work out some of her more violent tendencies.
Thus the budding spy goes to meet the “Matron” (Charlotte Rampling, treading on our memory of her sadomasochistic relations in “The Night Porter”). Matron trains Dominika and other dead-eyed youths on seduction and small arms fire, explaining plausibly that the Cold War isn’t really over — Russia can still be victorious because social media will be the downfall of the West. She alerts them that, “Your body belongs to the state,” and Dominika excels at leaning in to what she finds repellant.
Meanwhile, Nate is still running the mole for the Yanks and Soviet bigwigs Colonel Zacharov (Ciaran Hinds, good Russian accent) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons, great Russian accent) are dispassionately displeased with the situation. They have Uncle Ivan sic his niece on Mr. Nash who, somewhat stereotypically, has a thing for blondes.
Nate risks whiplash the way he snaps his attention to Dominika the first time she saunters by her swimming costume. Nate senses that she is a fellow spook but it’s hardly a concern — he’s excited to mansplain spycraft to the young woman: “You must be pretty scared.”
She is not — like Charlize Theron in “Atomic Blonde,” Dominika quaffs Stoli and kills dudes while rocking power bangs (though Charlize got a sweet New Wave soundtrack instead of Grieg and Tchaikovsky).
Russia remains frozen in the landscapes of ‘80s movies: desolate, grey, snowy or foggy or both, filled with grim housing and sad dogs. The art direction is all about finding neutral templates on which to splash blood — plenty of which is creatively spilled. The most vivid violence involves the inappropriate use of skin grafting tools.
Your opinion of “Red Sparrow” will rest on how much you like looking at Jennifer Lawrence. For some, the flickers of emotion across her eyes and the gradations of her smile will be riveting stuff.
Others will be waiting impatiently for the puzzle pieces to arrange themselves at long last. Either way, credit to the star for retaining the same enigmatic visage the whole way, from the first plie to the final betrayal.