A Russian accent is only one of the challenges Jennifer Lawrence must struggle to overcome in “Red Sparrow,” a slick if slightly overstuffed spy thriller, plucked from a long line of cinematic femme fatales. The movie gets a classy lift from its supporting cast, but — serving primarily as a handsome showcase for its star — doesn’t entirely take off.
Lawrence’s Dominika is a renowned Russian ballerina whose career is abruptly cut short. In danger of losing the posh apartment — and healthcare for her ailing mother (Joely Richardson) — that the Bolshoi provided, she’s essentially pimped out by her uncle (Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who’s very good), a highly placed espionage official, to an elite unit coached in utilizing the arts of seduction and “psychological manipulation.”
A nasty indoctrination program follows under the tutelage of an implacable overseer (Charlotte Rampling), approximating the grueling regimen Ivan Drago undertook in “Rocky IV,” only with a lot more nudity. At the same time, an American CIA officer, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), is grappling with his bureaucracy, trying to get back to Europe to safeguard a Russian mole he has cultivated within the government.
The vestiges of the Cold War run pretty hot in the film, directed by Francis Lawrence (who teamed with Lawrence on a trio of “The Hunger Games” movies), which puts Dominika and Nate on an inevitable collision course. The question, played for all it’s worth, is who’ll wind up manipulating whom, with abundant twists and betrayals in writer Justin Haythe’s adaptation of Jason Matthews’ novel.
The “Who can you trust?” cat-and-mouse game is designed to keep the audience off balance and guessing, and that generally works; still, at nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes, “Red Sparrow” risks overstaying its welcome. For starters, the extended orientation drags on, at least for anyone who’s ready for the primary plot to finally jerk into motion.
People are “a puzzle of need,” Dominika is told during her training, a weakness the “sparrows” are exceptionally adept at exploiting. In that regard, she’s a natural, despite the indignities — and brutality — to which she’s subjected.
Despite the contemporary setting, “Red Sparrow” has a good deal in common with FX’s “The Americans,” which also explores the depths to which the Russians would go in manipulating their marks, using sex as the ultimate tool. In both cases, that involves uncomfortably mixing sex and violence, in a manner that especially here isn’t for the squeamish.
The film is distinguished by its peripheral players, among them Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons as senior Russian officials, and Mary-Louise Parker as a compromised American congressional aide. For the most part, though, the film provides an old-school vehicle for Lawrence, who after her esoteric indulgence in the box-office flop “mother!” is squarely back in movie-star territory, relying on her ability to seduce the audience.
Lawrence delivers on that level, and it’s hard not to identify with Dominika’s plight, having been reluctantly cast into this unforgiving world. As a spy, the one-time dancer has “great potential,” her uncle observes — a description that also applies to “Red Sparrow,” but which, for all its assets, doesn’t consistently reach those heights.
“Red Sparrow” premieres March 2 in the U.S. It’s rated R.