TUCSON, Ariz. - It likely takes a lot to make someone as accomplished and talented as Scarlett Johansson jealous. But if anything can get the job done, it's the sizzling and gripping spy thriller "Red Sparrow." It's basically the "Black Widow" movie that Johansson deserves and fans of her character have long clamored for, but may never come to be.
With fiery panache, Jennifer Lawrence figuratively shoves Johansson aside to claim the mantle as cinemadom's premiere Russian spy/seductress. Smoldering with ferocious energy that she often lets simmer just beneath the surface, Lawrence embraces one of her richest and most layered roles to date.
Director Francis Lawrence -- no relation -- who directed JLaw in the final three "Hunger Games" movies, lets loose when given a blank canvas to tell a dark, labyrinthine story of post-Cold War espionage.
Since this isn't a Marvel Cinematic Universe or "Hunger Games" movie forced to adhere to PG-13 standards, the director is able to venture to uncharted shores in terms of graphic violence and sexuality that he had only been able to hint at in his past work. The result is a raw, robust thriller of the sort that doesn't come around often enough.
JLaw plays Dominika, a prima ballerina who suffers a career-ending injury that forces her into a top-secret Sparrow spy program, in which bright young things are trained to use their minds and bodies to manipulate the powers that be into compromising personal and national secrets.
Dominika shows an affinity for the role that matches that of Dimitrevich (Matthias Schoenhaerts), her conniving, Vladimir Putin-lookalike uncle who forcibly recruits her into the Sparrows to serve his own cutthroat ends.
Dimitrevich casts Dominika down a rabbit hole of brutal survivalism. She's forced to compromise all aspects of her psyche and emotions, as well as her physical well-being, to serve vague, ever-shifting demands of the state. She hones her tactics on the fly, twisting male lust and power plays against them in a formidable brand of feminism. Her beautiful face and dainty body are masks for the cold-blooded, pragmatic assassin lurking beneath.
While "Red Sparrow" could have benefitted from another editing pass to cut into its laborious 140-minute running time, it overcomes slower moments with passionate and intense sequences that turn the proverbial screw with airtight suspense toward unpredictable ends.
In some sense, this is an exploitation film meant to revel in flesh and violence, but the style and artistic vision gives the film more than enough artistic validity to counteract those gripes.
This "Sparrow" soars to hights that Mockingjays would never dare to reach.
RATING: 3.5 stars out of 4.