Jennifer Lawrence had been looking for a film to revive her career which seemed to have started to flag after the "Hunger Games" series and her Best Actress Oscar for "Silver Linings Playbook." "Serena" (2014), "Joy" (2015), "Passengers" (2016) and "mother!" (2017) all met critical and commercial resistance. For this year, JLaw hopes to recover her lost momentum as she goes for a sexy secret agent role for a change.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence) was a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet until a freak accident forced her out of her rising career due to injury. Desperate to be able to keep supporting her ill mother (Joely Richardson), Dominika accepted the sketchy offer of her very own uncle Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a highly placed Russian spy official, to help them lure a certain subject for an extra-judicial execution.
She was sent to an academy for Sparrows under the tutelage of the "Matron" (Charlotte Rampling). This was a training ground for select agents who would use their looks and bodies to seduce required information out of targets. Her first case was to make contact with an American agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), and coax out of him the identity of the Russian mole he was protecting.
The film is a long one, 140 minutes -- more than two hours. It took its time to establish Dominika's back story in the first act. It devoted a lot of scenes of her Sparrow training, and these were some of the most interesting, controversial and sensational parts of the film. The rest of the film would be standard double-crossing spy dramatics we are more familiar with, a femme fatale spy is one of the oldest tricks in the book. However, not without some unexpected nifty twists of its own.
Lawrence finally conquered her fear to do film nudity in one very bold scene in front of a room of people, as she taunted a fellow trainee Nikolai (Makar Zaporozhskiy) to have sex with her. I was expecting bone-crushing fight scenes like those we saw in other female spy films like "Salt" or "Atomic Blonde" but there was not much of that here. That does not mean though that this was short on painfully gruesome torture scenes -- both inflicted on, and inflicted by, JLaw. She felt really ice-cold here, not easy for us to connect with.
Edgerton played an unconventional movie spy -- a one-dimensional good guy. There was never a point where you felt Nash would do anything bad to Dominika. Funny how the men (not JLaw) kept on referring to him as handsome, like we need to be convinced. On the other hand, I was more impressed with the characterization of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts of Dominika's Uncle Vanya. You knew the character was bad news, but the actor tries to give him some layers to make that final scene worth your while. Jeremy Irons looked miscast as the Russian General Korchnoi.
I wish Charlotte Rampling had more to do in the film than in only in those training center scenes. I was hoping that she and/or any of her classmates would figure in actual action somewhere else in the film, but there would be none of that. Mary Louise Parker was as quirky (and spaced out) as ever as Stephanie Boucher, the chief of staff to a US senator who was not averse to sharing secret data with her lesbian lover who turned out to be another Sparrow Marta (Thekla Reuten).
The storytelling of director Francis Lawrence (best known for having directed JLaw in three out of the four "Hunger Games" films) was not complicated and engaging, but may have occasional drag in certain points in Act 2. It sort of felt like a "Mission Impossible" the way the elements of the complex scheme all fell neatly into place.
I think there could have been a more deeply psychological exploration of sexual espionage, as that was its main selling point. The Sparrow academy part could actually have been a whole film in itself, but here, it barely scratched the surface of its cinematic potential. 6/10
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."