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‘Red Sparrow’ is like a cheap airport novel with a stellar cast

“Red Sparrow” is a high-gloss take on a rather cheap and sleazy tale, set deep in the bowels of Russian skulduggery. Its nasty espionage plot provides the perfect excuse to include lots of nudity, torture, sex scenes and bouts of brutal violence. It’s pure pulp fiction.

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But a top-notch cast, led by Jennifer Lawrence, makes it eminently watchable, if not entirely enjoyable.

“When I was in Moscow, I heard about a program. Young officers trained to seduce and manipulate. To use their bodies. To use everything. We call them sparrows.

That’s what she is.”

That “she” is Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Dominika, a former ballerina who’s been effectively blackmailed into becoming a Sparrow.

She’s first put through a sadistic training regimen run by a stone-cold headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling.

“From this day forward you will become sparrows, weapons in a global struggle for power.

Take off your clothes, your body belongs to the state. Since your birth the state nourished it, now the state asks something in return. You must learn to sacrifice for a higher purpose, to push yourself beyond all limitation and forget the sentimental morality in which you were raised.”

Following this Sparrow school education, which consists of scene after scene of student manipulation and humiliation, Dominika is sent out to seduce an American C.I.A. agent in an effort to smoke out a key Russian mole. When that C.I.A agent, played by Joel Edgerton, in turn tries to “turn” her, the standard spy games are fully engaged. Who’s playing whom? And who’s going to come out on top?

In a world this dark and shadowy, I suppose it’s only natural for there to be a fair bit of violence and unpleasant sex, but the torture scenes are a bit much. They’re so graphic and extreme that it can, at times, feel more like a horror film than a spy thriller. Those scenes are mercifully short but they definitely impact the tone of the film.

The cast, however, rises above the questionable material. Jennifer Lawrence carries herself with an air of dignity despite the indignities heaped upon her, just like her character. Matthias Schoenaerts is brilliantly sly as the two-faced uncle and Jeremy Irons, as a top Russian spy chief, is the very definition of chilly. In fact, so good are so many of the supporting performances that I found myself just relishing the fine array of actors on display, many of them sporting Russian accents.

I don’t read “airport novels” so I don’t know this for sure, but watching “Red Sparrow” gave me a sense of what I always imagined it would feel like to read one of those best-selling paperbacks. Here’s my imagined formula: Start with a strong opening plot device to hook the reader, next establish a rooting interest both for and against certain characters, then as interest begins to wane, throw in periodic episodes of sex and violence to flag that waning interest, and finally end with a surprise twist of some sort, preferably just as your plane lands. You may not feel enriched by what you read, but hey, it passed the time, didn’t it?

No one expects great literature from an airport novel, just a good read. Thanks to its fine cast, “Red Sparrow” (the movie) is a good read.

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