Red Sparrow fails to take off as spy film

In the new thriller "Red Sparrow," sex is cold, ugly and often violent.

In the James Bond films, sex with a globe-trotting spy seems to be fun, fun, fun. A martini, a tuxedo, a witty line or two and then it’s off to a luxurious bed with two tanned, muscular bodies. Not so in the new thriller “Red Sparrow,” where the sex is cold, ugly and often violent.

This dark, meandering and cliche-ridden bummer starring Jennifer Lawrence tries to reach for a cool and stylish look at contemporary spycraft but often falls victim to cartoon violence and a muddled story. Francis Lawrence, the director of the last three “Hunger Games” films, reunites with Lawrence for more adult fare but one likely to be remembered more for the outdoor junket photos of Lawrence in a thigh-slit dress in chilly London while her male co-creators wore coats.

The thriller film “Red Sparrow” stars Jennifer Lawrence as a ballerina-turned-spy who uses seduction as her main weapon.

Based on a book by former CIA agent Jason Matthews, “Red Sparrow” stars Lawrence as Dominika, a Moscow ballerina who has to rethink her career after a devastating injury. With the advice of her high-ranking spy uncle, she goes to a “sparrow” school where the students are taught to use seduction as their main weapon.

Dominika isn’t buying it and later complains to her uncle, “You sent me to whore school.” But she’s going to do it — forced to perform sex acts in front of the class — to pay for her sick mother’s care.

Our heroine is soon unleashed like Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita” but without that film’s visual coherence or empathy.  

What really drives Dominika is never clear, how she goes from a tea-drinking dancer to someone perfectly happy caving in someone’s head with a cane. That’s partly so viewers don’t know where her loyalties lie and will stay intrigued, but she gets lost in what could be a double-cross or triple-cross. Soon you just don’t care. 

In addition to Charlotte Rampling, there are fine turns from Jeremy Irons, Douglas Hodge and Mary-Louise Parker. On the other side, one of the worst casting decisions was making Joel Edgerton as Dominika’s love interest. He’s a puppy dog next to her tiger and there are no sparks between them.

“Red Sparrow” takes place in the languid, rich air of old European capitals and it gains no energy from high-end restaurants, hospitals and swimming pools. There are gorgeous exteriors of Vienna, Budapest, London and lush hotel interiors. The soundtrack is Tchaikovsky and Mozart. It’s like an extended Chanel ad, but with gore.

Gore? Oh yes. There are two rape scenes, torture, public and naked degradations, a garroting, a dead body in a tub with its head in a plastic bag, and more than a hint of incest. The bloodiness in juxtaposition with the bloodless high-end luxury is jarring, but not in a good way.