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Front Page - Friday, March 16, 2018

‘Red Sparrow’ plot, believability fly away in 2nd half

In the X-Men movies, computer animation smoothly morphs Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique into a variety of characters, allowing her to accomplish tasks through deceit. As Dominika in “Red Sparrow,” an espionage thriller currently in theaters, Lawrence works without the aid of computers to transform herself into a seductive temptress who does the bidding of Russian intelligence. The effect is just as seamless and impressive.

It’s as though Lawrence has slipped on the very skin of a Russian spy. She’s cold, calculating and severe, yet in keeping with the story, Lawrence allows a hint of vulnerability to ripple just beneath her character’s icy gaze and austere posture.

Since we’re all adults here, can I discuss the nudity? Although the film’s director shot these scenes with great sensitivity to his leading lady, the story still demanded bravery – and Lawrence delivered.

I bring this up not to entice anyone to see the film but as a way of expressing how “Red Sparrow” challenged Lawrence to enter new territory as an actress, and she stepped fearlessly forward.

Lawrence’s captivating turn as Dominika works to the benefit of “Red Sparrow,” which is at its best when it’s focused on its characters. When we meet Dominika, she’s a famed Russian ballerina working to support her sick mother. Following a career-ending injury, her uncle, Ivan, who works for Russian intelligence, offers her a way to continue caring for her mom: seduce a Russian politician and then replace his phone with one the state provides.

Nothing is as it seems, though. Instead of gaining access to the politician’s hotel room so she can swap phones, Dominika unwittingly lures him into a death trap, where an assassin kills him. Ivan then tells Dominika she must either begin working for Russian intelligence or be executed, since the government prefers there be no witnesses to the murder.

I guess Ivan isn’t angling for any Uncle of the Year awards.

From there, Dominika is whisked away to a secret location to be trained as a sparrow, a Russian operative capable of seducing her targets. These scenes introduce the chilling matron of the school, whose sole purpose is to tear her students down, remove everything that makes them individuals and rebuild them as pieces of state machinery.

Actress Charlotte Rampling is perfect as the matron. The scenes in which she spews Russian propaganda and forces her students to become something they were never meant to be are both mesmerizing and disturbing. I felt as though I was peering through a window at something that could actually be happening.

Dominika has a strong independent streak, though, and the matron is unable to remove it. But Dominika’s uncle pulls her into service anyway, setting up a game of cat and mouse between his niece, who wants to escape the cage in which he’s locked her, and Russian intelligence, which will kill her before allowing that to happen.

At this point, I was feeling thankful for “Red Sparrow,” which seems to be geared toward providing adults with intelligent escapist fare. Coming on the heels of the always serious Academy Awards and on the cusp of blockbuster season, it seemed well-fashioned for its target audience and well-timed.

But then the whole thing unraveled and left me disappointed. Where the first half of the film carefully developed its characters and laid the foundation for a smart but accessible espionage thriller, the second half of the movie forces these same characters to do things that make no sense, just to move the story forward.

The most glaring example of this involves the brutal killing of a secondary character to send a message to Dominika that she neither needs nor uses. Instead, this clunky bit of storytelling allows Dominika to take over the now dead agent’s mission and opens a window through which she can escape.

Once the story stopped developing organically and I could all but hear the desperate clacking of the screenwriter’s keyboard as he tried to string together a plot that made sense, I lost track of what was happening. I never overcame my confusion and was done with the movie long before it ended.

Just as damaging to “Red Sparrow” as the overwrought plot is the forced romance between Dominika and a CIA operative played by the usually terrific Joel Edgerton. These two have zero chemistry. The final shot of the film, which tries to suggest otherwise, reinforces the notion that “Red Sparrow” is a film of wasted potential.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the filmmakers. Perhaps the fault lies with the novel on which “Red Sparrow” is based. But then the people who made the movie should have smoothed over the rough patches. Either way, it’s a shame “Red Sparrow” isn’t a good film because Lawrence deserves recognition for her superb work as its lead actress.