Although marketed as a taut suspense thriller, Red Sparrow is in reality a disturbing drama about the moral compromises inherent to spycraft and the enduring trauma of sexual assault. No, it isn't fun. But it is an interesting film, one not worthy of the dismissive reviews it's been receiving.
Jennifer Lawrence leads a mostly non-Russian cast as a Bolshoi ballerina who, after her leg is broken during a performance, is recruited by her sleazy uncle (Matthias Schoenarts) into a secretive Russian spy unit known as Sparrows, whose primary training is in the art of seduction. "Whore school" is what she calls it, and she's not far off. (The program is presumably fictional; Red Sparrow is based on a 2014 novel by former CIA agent Jason Matthews.)
The plot is the usual cat-and-mouse spy stuff involving moles, double-crossers, inscrutable allegiances, and romantic entanglements. (Joel Edgerton costars a CIA agent who crosses Lawrence's path; their inevitable love connection plays out as aloof.) You've seen it all before, but Red Sparrow is smarter and quieter than last year's Atomic Blonde; less cerebral and intricate than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. How much it succeeds for you depends on how you reacted to those earlier films.
As long as you buy into everyone's phony Russian accents, the cast delivers, and Lawrence's performance treads the line between her oft-defiled victim in Mother! and her shellshocked warrior in the Hunger Games series. Director Francis Lawrence, no relation, helmed the last three Hunger Games installments, and he approaches this material with the same dead-eyed seriousness. The Sparrow training even recalls Katniss Everdeen's cynical instruction in The Hunger Games.
Fully earning its R rating in every respect, Red Sparrow is a punishing experience, but it's a handsome, assured production, with a lot of Hunger Games crew returning in key roles. Not least is the great composer James Newton Howard, who provides an evocative, string-heavy score reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann.