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Given all the sex and violence, it’s a shame Red Sparrow doesn’t generate much excitement.

Spy vs. Spy

The latest class of Red Sparrows
The latest class of Red Sparrows

In one major respect, Red Sparrow’s failures are a huge blow: Jennifer Lawrence puts it all out there. Literally. She offers a truly gutsy, surprising performance that includes full-frontal nudity. It’s a move that would seem to be unnecessary for a woman who already has Katniss Everdeen, Mystique and several David O. Russell productions to her credit. Not to mention she’s the recipient of that very special golden statuette named Oscar (for Silver Linings Playbook).

But that’s not the only blow. By the end of it, following one scene of brutality after another, some viewers will no doubt feel like they’ve been pummeled and smacked around by sundry spies and counter-spies. The movie certainly smacks all right. It smacks of a lot of things, but originality is not one of them.

And that’s another source of disappointment, considering the movie’s based on the award-winning novel by Jason Matthews, a man who spent 33 years in the CIA. While there are bits and pieces of espionage insight here and there, surely there are fresh stories to be told after all that time working in clandestine intelligence and counter-terrorism operations around the world.

Red Sparrow is the first in a trilogy of adventures featuring Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), a prima ballerina in the Bolshoi Ballet who turns Red Square operative after her leg is broken during a performance. The injury is a betrayal by her dance partner, an intentional move to replace her with his lover. As the saying goes, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. That goes exponential when the woman is Dominika.

Cupid’s Agent

It’s a slow-burn story that never reaches the boiling point as it sluggishly weaves together two story arcs — one involving Dominika, her departure from the Bolshoi and her need to find an alternate source of income in order to support herself and her fragile mother, Nina (Joely Richardson, Snowden), the other involving Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton, Warrior), a CIA agent who makes a bad call and loses track of his mole after an incident in Gorky Park.

Nate’s kicked out and sent to Budapest, but eventually the actions of his mole, Dominika and the CIA intertwine in what should be a fun lark. Both the CIA and the SVR (the Russian Federation’s Foreign Intelligence Service) orchestrate a friendship between Nate and Dominika.

Instead, it’s a plodding affair that acts like it’s more sophisticated than it really is. Dominika’s uncle, Vanya (no relation to Chekhov and played by a guy who looks an awful lot like Vladimir Putin, Matthias Schoenaerts, The Danish Girl), is a deputy director at the SVR and he sees lots of potential in her as a spy. As he puts it, she can see through people and stay one step ahead of them.

La Femme Dominika

In some respects, Red Sparrow plays like a Russian-transplanted remake of La Femme Nikita. But director Francis Lawrence (no relation to J.Law, although he directed her in three Hunger Games movies — Catching Fire and both parts of Mockingjay) doesn’t capture a fresh spin, a unique attitude. Instead, he goes for the brutal and the shocking.

But shock value can only go so far when there isn’t enough of a connection established with Dominika and her plight. Sure, she describes the training academy Vanya sends her to as “whore school” and she coldly, calmly masters the art of identifying what makes men tick (for some, it’s domination — something she can twist into fulfilling her own needs). She’s an interesting character, but she’s also a character held at a distance — so much so, even her frail mother (clearly an attempt at narrative manipulation to engender sympathy) can’t fully humanize her and bring her in from the Russian cold.

It all winds up being in disservice to a premise that holds so much timeliness right now, given Russia’s constantly in the news (real or otherwise) with reports of meddling in the U.S. elections. Turns out, according to Red Sparrow, those nefarious Russians have been watching the world get sucked into a lazy lifestyle dominated by social media, narcissism, shopping and other creature comforts. All the while, as the head mistress at the academy explains, they’ve been vigilant and fully aware the Cold War never really ended. And now they’re ready to storm the world stage once again and dominate.