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'Red Sparrow' is a revolting, pointless show of human cruelty

"Red Sparrow," the latest Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, is an espionage thriller with a bland plot and very little in the way of thrills. It's a film with a lot of production value that merely puts a glossy sheen over a story so trashy it ranks with gorefests like "Hostel" and other smut. Mindless and limitlessly cynical, its only saving grace is that eventually, it ends -- though it makes us wait an excruciating 140 minutes for the sweet release of credits.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a star Russian ballerina whose career is ruined after breaking her leg during a performance. Unable to pay for her apartment or care for her ailing mother, Dominika turns to her uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts), an intelligence officer. Vanya sends Dominika to a special military school, where she's trained in the art of seduction and manipulation, into an intelligence-gathering sex spy, or a Sparrow. Her first mission is to obtain the name of a Russian mole from his CIA contact, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton).

Although the endless betrayals and conspiracies add an air of complexity to the plot, it's a thin facade which crumbles under close inspection -- or any inspection, for that matter. The concept has been proven narratively and thematically bountiful by other forms of media, such as FX's excellent series "The Americans." Here, though, it's completely hollow; a playground for writers' twisted ideas rather than a place to convey a resonant message.

Speaking of those twisted ideas, boy, are there a bunch of them. "Red Sparrow" is unflinchingly brutal. The characters are like punching bags, mere objects meant to have various cruelties enacted upon them. Throughout the film, people are raped, sexually coerced and assaulted, brutally murdered, beaten with a cane, hit by a car and sadistically tortured. The camera captures it all with a disgusting callousness and coldness. The only significance of these acts is to demonstrate the idea of, "jeez, don't these people do bad things?" It is gratuitous and trite, and adds disturbing exploitation in film without any new insight.

Dominika may be a ballerina, but this movie lacks grace. If torture porn and rape fantasies count as high art, then "Red Sparrow" is a veritable "Citizen Kane." Director Francis Lawrence brought more nuance and subtlety to his "Hunger Games" adaptations. To think that those could be the greatest heights of his artistic expression should tell you all you need to know about "Red Sparrow."

The film operates under the basis that the Cold War never really ended, and its politics play out that way. There are certain hints of that age-old Red Scare philosophy -- Russians are pure evil, Americans are rays of sunshine --but the characters are so bland and nondescript that even this hackneyed idea goes nowhere. Yet again, the film tackles the same subjects and ideas as "The Americans," and fails to bring anything significant to the table. If anything, I should thank "Red Sparrow" for reminding me that I need to finish that series.

You could certainly find reasons to watch "Red Sparrow." For example, you might want to see a character have his skin peeled off layer by layer. You could be searching for a film that portrays human suffering in the most visceral and brutal sense, full of cynicism and lacking in purpose. Maybe you just want proof that Jennifer Lawrence doesn't do a great Russian accent. If any of this sounds interesting, then "Red Sparrow" has just what you're looking for.

1/5 stars

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