Mid-thigh squeeze, James Bond should have tapped Xenia Onatopp on the knee and asked, “Tell me about your education?” Perhaps she, too, was a Red Sparrow, the name given to seductive Soviet fembots in Jason Matthews’ best-selling novel-turned-leather-slicked spy flick starring Jennifer Lawrence as State School 4’s latest cadet commanded to seduce American CIA officer Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton). It’s a strange name — surely, there are scarier things to call a Russian ballerina-turned-babelicious-agent. (Marvel called theirs Black Widow.) Yet, it fits with the film’s mindset that Moscow doesn’t consider these women and men — yes men, too — action heroes. They’re merely disposable playthings to be discarded after riffling Bond’s pockets. Lawrence’s Dominika Egorova is repeatedly reminded that her body belongs to the state, like a lamp or a pen. When an oligarch caresses a scar on Dominika’s leg, he murmurs, “Like a crack in a vase.”
Like vases, characters like Dominika tend to be hard and pretty and hollow, perhaps embellished with a surface etching of trauma, say a murdered boyfriend, an imperiled loved one, or in Black Widow’s case, a broken womb. In lieu of personality, they get perfect hair. It’s a Hollywood coincidence that these emotionally damaged jujutsu experts also look like, say, Charlize Theron — at least Red Sparrow admits it’s selecting for hotties.
Red Sparrow‘s trailer appears to sell more phony femmepowerment. Vicious, empty vamps get my eyes rolling so hard I could never machine-gun a target, let alone in stilettos. But the film sees and raises that trope. It shows how fantasy tigresses get made by men, to help men, with help from a few pitiless women in navy blue suits. “Don’t give him all of you,” cautions Dominika’s (of course) disabled mother (Joely Richardson) when her powerful uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), a thin-lipped Putin clone, carts her away to camp. So Lawrence tucks away a piece of her character’s soul that the film never makes her reveal. Yet by the end, you want to give every Bond villainess a hug.
With her round cheekbones and smooth limbs, Lawrence looks like a factory-stamped doll. That’s exactly what she’s pretending to be. On day one of Sparrow training — or “whore school,” as Dominika sneers — the headmistress (Charlotte Rampling) asks her to strip for the class. Failure means execution. Her hand jobs will be publicly graded, and when she bloodies a jealous classmate for attempting to rape her in the shower, a Russian officer (Jeremy Irons) tsk-tsks, “Why not let him have you?” He’s clearly an ass, as is her uncle who claims he’d never let a target hurt his niece, but is too pig-headed to include sexual assault. These men are idiots, all of them, from the klutzy ballet partner who ruined her career, to the monsters who forced her into this place, to the middle-management bureaucrats always trying to take credit for female sparrows’ ideas.
The film tests the limits of compliance. In every scene, you want to see Lawrence scream at her superiors. Her silence frustrates, but it also feels honest — not documentary honest, but emotionally honest — because most victims don’t have literally killer glutes. Lawrence’s Dominika lies when she needs to and tells the truth when it’s a better weapon, and barely half the time can we guess which is which. In the over two-hour film, she smiles twice, cries twice, and vomits twice, and only the puking is sincere. Once, before knocking at Nash’s apartment, she dry heaves to convince him she’s a vulnerable thing who’s been knocked around. Her manipulations reminded me of a story from Deep Throat star Linda Lovelace’s autobiography. Hugh Hefner wanted her to screw a dog. She was scared to disobey, so she flung herself at the mutt until it shied away. At least no one could say she hadn’t tried. There are different ways to fight.
If Dominika was broken, or worse, if we enjoyed watching her break, the film would be unforgivable. But director Francis Lawrence drains the pleasure out of seeing a pretty girl in her panties. He refuses to let us leer at Jennifer Lawrence’s long legs without a jab of shame. What’s left is cold and perverse, heat provided only by the satisfying ways Dominika out-thinks the creeps while pretending to be their “magic pussy.” This is a film about a woman faking polite to save her own neck while remaining alert to how everyone else sees her. That’s not far from the Hunger Games films’ Katniss, another Lawrence and Lawrence collaboration, though I expect audiences will feel more revolted watching her give a jerk a boner than get attacked by deadly bees. Twelve-year-olds who loved the first Hunger Games can now legally buy Red Sparrow‘s very-much-R-rated ticket. Hi kids!
Novelist Matthews spent 33 years in the CIA, much of it working in the former USSR, and Red Sparrow was hailed for being more or less truthful about the ordinary day-to-day tasks of men like Nash, from how to dodge a tail to what to eat in Estonia. (The book ended each chapter with a recipe.) Screenwriter Justin Haythe scraped the directions for horseradish sauce and beet salad, and also Dominika’s nonsense form of synesthesia that lets her see the colors of strangers’ emotions: purple for the honest, black for fiends, and let me suggest rainbow-hued mockery for people who snort at the idea of a badass ballerina who sees hippie auras.
Still, Red Sparrow‘s biggest idea is that girls raised under Soviet rule don’t think like Americans — and they don’t act like Hollywood heroines. She’s unpredictable, and so is the film. Instead of sprinting through hailstorms of gunfire, untouchable and sleek, Dominika mostly uses her brain, with an occasional kitchen knife, and she doesn’t make big speeches about the value of human lives. When Nash tries, he just sounds naive. One Russian wryly jokes about, “Our clumsy American friends for whom, at least, individual freedom is an aspiration.”
The movie draws a firm line between the American spies, like Nash’s colleagues Marty and Trish (Bill Camp and Sakina Jaffrey) who spend a lot of time comfortably chit-chatting about tactics, and the Russians, who trust no one and scheme like their lives depend on it, which they do. Another American, a hilarious Mary-Louise Parker, brags over a stiff vodka that she’s no ideologue. Neither is Dominika, but she’s smart enough to vow she’s a patriot. When Nash’s meet-up with a mole goes wrong, an encounter Lawrence films like a gorgeous noir, he gripes about a demotion. We’ve seen that scene in dozens of spy movies where the good guy can’t think of anything worse that not getting everything he wants. Here, we’re allowed to think Nash is a crybaby.
Still, to his, and the script’s credit, Nash is onto Dominika since she accidentally-on-purpose bumps into him at swimming pool slithering around in a suit designed exclusively for rap videos. That suit — strappy, black, impractical, stunning — gives her away, and it captures Red Sparrow in one catwalk strut. It’s an outrageous gambit that dares you to look, a calculated, jiggling risk that’s going to get everyone involved in trouble. I felt dirty for gawking. But I don’t regret it.