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POWER THRILLS: New espionage film ‘Red Sparrow’ entertains and engages

I love some good, old-fashioned espionage—the cloak-and-dagger movies wherein every character engages in some precision-level maneuvers, like a deadly game of chess. Highly trained spies engage in a battle of wits and try to stay one step ahead of agencies that are one bad decision away from revoking their license to kill and murdering them in cold blood. We don’t get enough of these movies, so IO was pleased as punch to check out the new thriller “Red Sparrow.” 

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SEX POT: Jennifer Lawrence turns in a stellar performance in ‘Red Sparrow,’ with a power-play sex scene for the books. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence) is a typical ridiculously good-looking Russian star ballet dancer with her whole life ahead of her. What could possibly go wrong? Her career is decimated by a horrific injury that leaves her with precious few options. Dominika’s Uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a big-time muckity muck with Russian intelligence. He arranges for Dominika to seduce a politician and switch out his cell phone with a state-controlled duplicate. Unfortunately, it’s just the first of many lies Ivan will tell Dominika. The actual plan is to have her distract him with her beauty while an assassin shows up and chokes him to death mid-coitus. Dominika has two options: Be trained as a weapon for the government or be executed.

Dominika is sent to the world’s most joyless finishing school to become a “sparrow”—a lethal, manipulative, mind-game-playing super agent who can get under anyone’s skin. Her training is an assault on both her senses and psyche. The goal is to turn young men and women into the fiercest, feistiest sexually aggressive weapons in the international spy game. Soon enough, she’s off to Budapest to try and engage rebellious CIA operative Nate (Joel Edgerton) in a cat-and-mouse game to find out who is playing whom. Thankfully, they’re both gorgeous human beings and make the game more like a sexy tango between two top-tier manipulators. 

Much of the movie comes down to the concept that sparrows can’t be trusted—no matter what Dominika is telling Nate and the American intelligence agents, she is probably lying. Nate wants to believe her because … well, she’s super hot and into him. I’m not saying I’d betray my country for a night of sweaty wrestling with Jennifer Lawrence, but I could at least consider it would be tempting.

Fortunately, the movie keeps Dominika’s intentions relatively unclear until the end, as she tap-dances back and forth over the line between our side and theirs. What is her end game? Is she really trying to break free from her Russian handlers, or is she playing the long con to find the name of the mysterious mole, code-named “Marble.” 

There are very few movies today that manage to shock or surprise. Anyone who spends as much time watching movies as I do, one would think I’d have seen it all. “Red Sparrow” contains a moment that literally made my jaw drop. During her re-education, Dominika participates in a series of sex-education classes for the psychotic, where she learns how to wrap men around her finger. In one scene, she is asked to have sex in class, with another agent who attempted to rape her. She takes off her clothes, lays back on a desk and then delivers the most ice-cold takedown of her male counterpart when she realizes he can’t get it up when he isn’t in a position of power. It’s a great scene; it absolutely flabbergasted me.  Not “great” like the final scene of “The Godfather” or the opening of “Good Burger,” but “great” as in “I can’t believe I’m seeing this happening in a major motion picture!”

There’s a lot about “Red Sparrow” I liked—the acting is solid. J-Law does an admirable job as a cold, heartless ice pick of a human being. Joel Edgerton does a good job playing the titular Steve Trevor-type of the movie. The film tries to play out the story in a cerebral fashion.  It’s more Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy than Atomic Blonde, and I appreciate the effort. It’s also a gorgeous looking film with some beautiful cinematography. It is by no means an exceptional movie, but I was highly entertained by the antics and surprised how far the movie was willing to go to portray the stark, frightening world of the conspiracy game being played by competing nations. “Red Sparrow” is a bleak, tense, engaging, and entertaining thriller not for the faint of heart. 

DETAILS:
Red Sparrow
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Rated R
Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, 910tix.com. Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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