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film review

Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow.Murray Close

In the barely satisfactory spy thriller Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence is a Bolshoi star with a broken leg, her ballet career rudely cut short by a treacherous grand jeté. The onstage "accident" results in a new career for Dominika Egorova, a dancer turned sexpot spy, trained in the art of cutthroat seduction in service of the state.

The film is based on an espionage novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA operative who could probably kill a man with nothing but a paper clip and a well-worn John le Carré novel. What we have with this film, then, is something akin to La Femme Nikita Who Came in from the Cold.

The director is Francis Lawrence, who not only shares a last name (albeit no relation) with the star of Red Sparrow but, as the director of three Hunger Games films, is well-acquainted with her screen-melting talent.

To the film critics tasked with watching Red Sparrow, the director sent out an e-mail plea: "Due to the twists and turns in this film, I would be grateful if you would keep all major plot points (including the ending) secret, so other viewers can enjoy the movie to the fullest."

At least that's what I think it said. It was written in disappearing ink.

Waterboard me if you will, but I will sputter out no spoilers. Just know that there are possible double-agents and probable moles, and good bad-guys and bad good-guys. Intense torture and blunt nudity, too. Joel Edgerton co-stars as American CIA agent Nate Nash. They don't make names like that any more – for good reason.

It's no state secret that Jennifer Lawrence is a real-deal movie star, though. Here, she shines as the empowered Dominika, loyal to no one but herself (and her ill mother). Her manner is as stoic and severe as her bangs. At the Russian spy school, where sex appeal is taught to be weaponized, Charlotte Rampling is the unsmiling headmistress. She isn't sold on Dominika's abilities, but a Russian officer (played by Jeremy Irons) is.

Edgerton's Nash is absolutely sold on her, as is Dominika's Russian-agent uncle (a creepy piece of work who basically pimps out his niece to Russia's External Intelligence Service). Audiences likely will be sold on the character as well.

In the role, Lawrence dominates. Red Sparrow is stylish and tense enough, but the writing is run-of-the-mill and the film lacks the soul of something like the Nikita movies. The watchability comes from Lawrence.

Dominika and her sex-soldier classmates are told that every human being is a "puzzle of needs," and that their job is to be able to "intuit" and "exploit" their target's specific vulnerability. Just as Dominika doesn't need to be told that twice, Lawrence has picked up on the skill, too. As an actress, she manipulates and seduces.

There's a strong feminist overtone at work. Yes, Dominika belonged to the Bolshoi. And, yes, at the spy school she is told that the state "owns your body." But Dominika's mother tells her something she takes to heart: "Don't give them all of you. That is how we survive."

Lawrence recently talked to Vanity Fair about doing nude scenes for Red Sparrow as opposed to the smartphone hacking of her nude selfies, saying that the film's nudity was her choice, and that by doing it, "I got something back that was taken from me." A Hollywood actress getting something back that was taken from her. Thankfully, there is a lot of that going around.

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