Wednesday, March 7, 2018

In Theaters: RED SPARROW (2018)

(US - 2018)

Directed by Francis Lawrence. Written by Justin Haythe. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarin Hinds, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Hugh Quarshie, Sebastian Hulk, Sergei Polunin, Kristof Konrad, Sasha Frolova. (R, 140 mins)

To get a feel of what RED SPARROW is like, imagine ATOMIC BLONDE if written by John Le Carre with an uncredited script polish by Joe Eszterhas and directed by 1990s Paul Verhoeven. It's probably not gonna fly with those constantly looking for something to be offended by, but it's nice to see a major-studio movie with A-list star diving unabashedly into hard-R territory with no reservations whatsoever. Sexually frank and often brutally, sickeningly violent, RED SPARROW is based on the 2013 novel by Jason Matthews, the first in a trilogy centered on Dominika Egorova, played here by Jennifer Lawrence, reunited with Francis Lawrence, the director of the last three HUNGER GAMES installments. As RED SPARROW begins in Moscow, Dominika is a rising star in the Bolshoi Ballet, but her career comes to an abrupt end when her dance partner lands on her left leg and shatters it in the middle of a performance. Left with a limp, depressed, and concerned about caring for her terminally ill mother Nina (Joely Richardson), Dominika is approached by her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high ranking deputy in Russian intelligence, who requests a favor that can maybe financially help with her mother's care expenses. Having caught the eye of shady businessman Dmitri Ustinov (Kristof Konrad), Dominika is to be the bait to lure him to a hotel room, where she's to switch his phone with another implanted with a tracking device. Vanya assures her there's no danger, but of course, Ustinov gets rapey and assassin Matorin (Sebastian Hulk) is forced to intervene and kill him, whisking Dominika away immediately after.

Vanya's bosses--including intelligence director Zakharov (Ciarin Hinds) and General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons)--need Dominika to keep quiet by any means necessary. In order to spare her life and to provide care for Nina, Vanya sends Dominika to a "state school" (termed "whore school" by Dominika) where attractive male and female "sparrows" are trained in the ways of seduction, psychological manipulation, and espionage by the ominously-named Matron (Charlotte Rampling). Sparrows are taught to use their bodies to gain advantage, they're put through endless psychological and physical rigors, forced to submit to sexual demands and use their sexuality to gain power over an adversary. Dominika, renamed "Katya," butts heads with Matron, especially after she violently attacks a male sparrow during an attempted rape and then sexually humiliates him in front of the entire class when she intimidates him so much that he can't get it up. Dominika has already established that she has a capacity for extreme violence and uncontrolled rage--she finds out that the ballet accident was intentional and done so in order allow her partner's girlfriend to assume her spot in the ballet, and she promptly beats the shit out of both of them--and despite her strong-willed refusal to bend to Matron's will, Vanya pulls her out to give her a mission: get close to Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), a CIA agent on thin ice after a botched intel exchange in Gorky Park with a Russian mole who's been feeding info to the Americans. Nash goes off the radar but resurfaces in Budapest, where Dominika is sent to use her skills in order to find the identity of the mole.

The story takes many twists and turns with the obligatory shifting alliances, double-crosses, and people not being who they're thought to be, and while RED SPARROW doesn't really break any new ground as far as spy thrillers go, it's consistently intriguing, very well-acted, and filled with enough gasp-inducing shocks to keep your eyes glued to the screen, or wincing and looking away if Matorin is skinning someone. Sporting a quite convincing Russian accent, a stone-cold Lawrence is excellent and gets solid support from numerous standouts in the supporting cast, including Schoenaerts as the duplicitous Vanya who can barely hide his sexual desire for his late brother's daughter (can't wait to see him as Vladimir Putin in the inevitable Trump miniseries), Mary-Louise Parker as a US senator's corrupt chief of staff who's got plenty of blackmail baggage and is selling secrets to the Russians, and especially Rampling, who almost steals the film in her limited screen time as the stern, brittle Matron, a woman who's dead inside after giving everything she is to Russia and perhaps sees her younger self in the willful, stubborn Dominika (the sexual power games among the Sparrows-in-training also brings to mind the veteran actress' role in 1974's THE NIGHT PORTER). Though there are several uncomfortable scenes throughout, the knee-jerk response of the perpetually outraged seems to miss the point: Dominika is a strong heroine who proves to be several steps ahead of everyone, refusing to allow herself to be a victim and forcing anyone who wrongs her to pay dearly. Maybe it's because we're in an era where teenagers are the target audience and people have forgotten that movies for adults can still be a thing, but RED SPARROW is pretty strong stuff, with levels of sex, nudity, and violence that you really don't often see in mainstream, multiplex entertainment these days. While this is much more commercially accessible at its core, between RED SPARROW and last fall's MOTHER!, a post-Katniss Everdeen Lawrence (like the career choices made by TWILIGHT vets Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson and HARRY POTTER's Daniel Radcliffe) continues to demonstrate that she isn't complacent and isn't afraid to challenge herself and take some risks.

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