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If there's one thing that can be said about Red Sparrow, it certainly has impeccable timing. In an era when the United States has serious questions about the intentions of Russia, we get a modern-day spy movie that is clearly designed to remind one of the espionage movies of the Cold War. So much so that one sequence has state secrets being transferred via 3.5" floppy disks. That is a thing that happens.
Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is a ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet who loses the ability to dance following a tragic accident on stage. Since her apartment and her sick mother's health care are provided by the state-run ballet, she needs to find a new source of income and so she turns to her uncle (Matthias Schoenaerts), a member of Russia's intelligence community. He sends her to "Sparrow School," a place where young Russians learn how to seduce and manipulate targets in order to obtain valuable information for the state. For Dominka's first assignment, she must get close to CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Egerton) and learn the identity of his informant inside the Russian government. Pretense falls away quickly, however, as Nash quickly realizes who Dominika is, but believes she can be turned into an asset for the CIA. As the relationship grows, a romance appears to bloom.
What follows is a fairly standard espionage thriller, but one dripping with atmosphere. The Russians want their Sparrow to get information from the Americans. The Americans want her working for them, and all she wants is to make sure her sick mother is safe. There are double crosses, hidden agendas, and you never really know what you're supposed to believe and what you're not.
While this works for the spy portion of the movie, it is inexorably intertwined with the romance portion of the movie, and the romance ends up falling flat. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton are playing trained spies, so you'd expect one or both to at least put up a pretense of trying to not get involved in that way. It happens so quickly, and with so little chemistry, that a savvy spy movie fan might assume that one of them must be playing the other. You keep waiting for the twist... but it never really comes.
Jennifer Lawrence performs admirably in her lead role. Her accent isn't even all that bad after awhile. Lawrence shows a vulnerability beneath her tough exterior when she needs to which makes her character feel real. Still, it would have been nice to get a bit deeper into her character. Dominika Egorova seems unusually suited to being a Sparrow as she takes to it nearly instantly, but we never really learn why that is. The movie is ultimately about Lawrence's character breaking free of the control of others, but we never learn where the inner strength required to do so comes from. With as much time as we spend with her we never really get to understand who she is.
This could possibly have been done if the film had spent a bit more time in Sparrow School, which is by far the most interesting portion of the film. Charlotte Rampling is in and out of Red Sparrow all too quickly as the matron of the institution who trains her Sparrows in the art of seduction. She's the only one in the movie who gives the impression she's enjoying herself.
However, for Red Sparrow to spend more time anywhere, it would have only become longer, and at nearly two and a half hours, the movie is already long enough. The movie is paced reasonably well, so that's not so much the issue. What is the issue is that the film's violence is so visceral that the film's extended runtime makes you hope for the end just to see it stop. Red Sparrow contains multiple torture and rape sequences that are not for the faint of heart.
In the end, everything comes together in a conclusion that nearly everybody will predict some of, and some will predict all of, which is not to say it's unsatisfying. Red Sparrow isn't nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but it's maybe just smart enough to keep an audience entertained.