Red Sparrow

Year: 2018
Production Co: Chernin Entertainment
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Francis Lawrence
Producer: Peter Chernin/Steve Zaillian
Writer: Justin Haythe
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Jeremy Irons, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciarán Hinds, Joel Richardson

Along with Tom Cruise in American Made, this film is another reminder that the era of the movie star is well and truly over. While another comic book movie (Black Panther) starring actors most of the population wouldn't know from a bar of soap was universally beloved and became the biggest selling superhero film in the US domestic market's history, another Jennifer Lawrence movie after Passengers (in which she has several nude scenes, no less) was ignored and forgotten, barely clawing its budget back in cinemas.

Everything from the political mood in the story to the production design and camerawork (very grey and blocky, lots of contrast and lurid slashes of red) makes it feel like a classic espionage thriller set in the 80s with all the classic Cold War trappings of the era. There are a few lines thrown to reposition it as being the modern day, but they don't add anything.

The story is about a ballerina, Dominika (Lawrence). After being badly hurt in an onstage accident her career seems to be over, the care and medicine she needs for her sick mother now out of reach. But an Uncle (Vanya – is that a sly nod to classic literature most moviegoers won't get?) of hers who's kind but slightly creepy comes calling with an offer; work for the state as a spy and her mother will be taken care of.

Little does Dominika know that involves being trained as a sparrow, a young operative whose primary weapon will be the promise of sex to get unsuspecting enemies of the state where the powers that be want them – including dead. Though unskilled, her prowess is proven in an early scene when she's assigned to meet a businessman in a hotel. He's barely started pawing and raping her when a icy, blonde haired and blue eyed Germanic assassin straight from Central Casting bursts out and brutally dispatches the mark with a garotte wire.

As she's shepherded through the sparrow program, deflecting the advances of several colleagues and proving herself uniquely suited to work in the field, she's assigned to make contact with CIA officer Nash (Joel Edgerton). Early on, we've seen Nash preparing to meet a contact in a Moscow park before they're surprised by local cops. We never learn the identity of Nash's insider during the tense melee and after the fallout, he's pulled out of Russia.

But his superiors soon have to accept that his high-ranking contact won't re-emerge for anyone other than Nash himself, so he's reinstalled in Budapest to wait for the guy to get back in touch. The thing is, the Russians are well aware of the mole, so they send Dominika to go to work secuding Nash to win his trust and find out who it is.

Of course, this being a dramatic thriller with attractive young leads, Dominika and Nash fall in love for real (or do they?), and with her facing either a lifetime of sexual servitude or execution because of what she knows, she offers to become an informant for Nash if he gets her out.

The film reteams Lawrence with her The Hunger Games films director Francis Lawrence, and to his credit he's tried to make a grown up film – Red Sparrow doesn't scrimp on the blood, nudity or violence the genre demands to stop it being the Disney version of the same thing.

But it's all a bit hard to understand. Like the potboiler novel it's based on probably is too (also see The Girl on the Train and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo ) the movie's very plotty – too much so at times, leaving you struggling to keep up with who everyone is and what they want.

It's also not made any easier by the fact that it sports an incredible cast of serious senior thespians but does that peculiar thing Hollywood still does of having them do their cheesiest 'I am Russian spy from Moscow' accents, leaving some of the dialogue very hard to understand. In fact it's a bit of a cacophany all round, with some great European and American actors doing bad Russian voices and an Australian (Edgerton) doing a pretty bad American one.

Also like Tom Cruise, it'll remind you a little bit of Valkyrie, another political thriller about spies and subterfuge that boasted some very prestigious British and European actors and plonked a big American multiplex star down in the middle of them.

It's also undoubtedly generated the usual discussion (albeit small, owing to the number of people who saw it) about empowerment, and Lawrence herself has said that after the leak that saw nude pictures of her all over the Internet, this time it's empowering because she chose to appear naked in the film. And yes, there's a scene in a strip club.

That might be the case, but once again there's an inherent disconnect about attractive young actresses talking about representing female empowerment by taking their clothes off and working in what – in plain economic terms – can only be called prostitution.

There's a lot to enjoy about Red Sparrow but there are a few too many flaws keeping it from being really good. The saddest thing however is that it'll be just one more failure of an original idea that isn't part of a superhero franchise and will further convince movie executives not to greelight anything like it. Lawrence must be one of the last movie stars alive who could get any studio to spend $70m on a Cold War-era spy thriller, and without Netflix the market is disappearing rapidly.

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