With Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence Tried to Save the Mid-Budget, Star-Powered Thriller

This kind of sleazy, violent, and twisty film doesn’t get made anymore.

Written by Joe Allen
20th Century Fox

Are there any movie stars left? It’s one of the definitive questions of the modern movie-going era, and one that most people seem to think has been answered. Gone are the days when Will Smith could push Wild Wild West to $100 million on the power of his name alone. Now we are ruled by soulless IP, from Marvel to Star Wars to whatever else you loved as a kid.

There are still a few genuine stars out there, but they’re mostly older, the kinds of actors studios are eager to work with because of their long legacies. There’s plenty of young talent too, but few whose names carry the kind of currency that older stars did in their prime. When she first emerged in Hollywood, Jennifer Lawrence seemed to suggest that kind of stardom was still possible. She was compelling, funny, and young, a breath of fresh air because she didn’t seem to rehearse before she went on Letterman.

For about six years, Lawrence was one of the biggest stars in the world, and Red Sparrow was the last gasp of that initial run. Like mother! before it, Red Sparrow was Lawrence in her no-holds-barred, I-do-what-I-want era. Working with the unrelated Francis Lawrence, a steady hand she knew well from the Hunger Games films, Lawrence was able to star in a high-budget spy thriller that was cold, distant, and otherwise everything modern studio films aren’t anymore. The reason the movie got made, and the reason it had a budget north of $65 million, was Lawrence.

Even for her, though, Red Sparrow was a departure. Generally, she’d been making awards-season fare and Hunger Games movies, with the occasional X-Men adventure thrown in for good measure. Red Sparrow fell into neither category, as it was released in February and was far more focused on its intricate plotting than on gaining any awards recognition. It was a star vehicle, and the last one Lawrence made before she stepped away from acting for a while.

Red Sparrow itself got a bad rap. The movie is far from perfect, but its confrontational, almost exploitative sexual content makes it feel genuinely transgressive when compared to the sexless stories that dominate most major blockbusters. Lawrence plays Dominika, a ballerina in modern-day Russia who’s coerced into spying on behalf of the Russian government following a career-ending injury. She’s eventually tasked with seducing a CIA agent, and we spend much of the movie wondering whether her feelings are genuine.

If there was any continuity from The Hunger Games, it was in the outfits.

20th Century Fox

Lawrence is seductive and implacable, difficult to read but never to watch as a new agent whose allegiances are torn. Joel Edgerton is her partner throughout, and he does the kind of sturdy work he’s long been known for, leaving Lawrence to play the role of the potential deceiver. It’s her performance, and what it said about where she was in her career, that helps Red Sparrow endure.

While Lawrence is one of only a few people who could have gotten this film financed, she also used the role to evolve how the public saw her. Red Sparrow is filled with frank depictions of nudity and levels of violence much more severe than anything Lawrence had done. It toes the line of good taste from the second it starts, featuring an early rape sequence and a truly nasty fight you’d rarely see in most movies that cost north of $65 million.

That fight feels like the movie’s mission statement in miniature. It’s carefully choreographed, but in a way that feels messy. The main weapons are a knife and hammer, and you feel every cut. It’s not a Marvel fight, but it’s also not the kind of fight you’d see in a more accomplished action movie. It’s brutal and short, and ends with Lawrence bruised and covered in blood.

In spite of its complicated mechanics, Red Sparrow feels very much the same. It’s as if both Lawrences are raging against the dying of the mid-budget genre picture, and are determined to make one more dangerous, dirty spy movie before they’re shunted off to Netflix forever. It may have represented the end of Lawrence’s initial wave of success, but it also reminded us why so many thought she was a movie star to begin with: she can do almost anything, and we’ll gladly watch her do it.

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