Jennifer Lawrence scores points for taking on challenging parts instead of coasting on star-power, as she easily could. But does that mean we have to watch her being abused and subjected to unrelenting torture? I vote “no.” That’s not to label Red Sparrow a dud. Based on a best-selling novel by former CIA man Jason Matthews, it’s a twist-laden espionage tale shot on interesting locations in Budapest (filling in for Moscow), London, and Bratislava. A formidable cast is led by Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenarts, Charlotte Rampling, Jeremy Irons, Ciarán Hinds, Mary-Louise Parker, Joely Richardson, and Bill Camp.

Then there’s the always-watchable Lawrence, playing a Russian ballerina whose career is cut short after an accident on stage. This prompts her uncle (Schoenarts) to recruit her for a rigorous spy training program. It means using her sexual attraction to seduce targeted victims, setting herself up for possible rape if necessary. Needless to say, this is dangerous stuff and there are serious repercussions. CIA operative Joel Edgerton knows this all too well.

The intrigues are many—perhaps too many—in this two-hour and twenty-minute film, which juggles multiple storylines and complex relationships. As the plot thickens we are asked to bear witness to scenes of extreme violence and almost unbearable torture. These escalating sequences wore me down to the point where I couldn’t enjoy the movie’s storytelling strengths.

What’s more, Lawrence’s character is ice-cold, as she must be to survive. That makes it difficult to care about her, even though she is clearly a pawn in this game. The fact that she has exceptional survival skills is supposed to make up for the film’s abundant and graphic sex scenes. Her frequent nudity is organic to the story, unlike the naked bodies that turn up in arbitrary fashion on cable TV. Titillation is not the objective here. Director Francis Lawrence worked closely with Lawrence (whom he directed in the last two Hunger Games installments) to ensure that the actress approved each shot.

That’s all well and good, but I left Red Sparrow with no sense of satisfaction. I’m not sure what the takeaway is supposed to be: espionage is a dirty business? Don’t trust anyone, especially in Russia? Powerful men are often pigs, easily undone by a seductive woman? Don’t get mad, get even? Take your pick: they all apply, but I’d prefer to get these messages in a movie that didn’t make me feel as if I, too, had been victimized.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024