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'Red Sparrow' a sadistic, gratuitous movie somehow made in the #metoo era

Jennifer Lawrence stars in "Red Sparrow." (Murray Close/Fox/TNS)
Published Feb. 26, 2018

Recently I've been writing a lot about the Academy Awards' unflattering history of honoring roles depicting women being victimized or made sexual objects. Something to think about in the wake of #metoo and Time's Up revelations.

It left me feeling guilty for mostly enjoying the sexist, sadistic and absurdly kinky Red Sparrow starring a hyper-sexualized Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian spy.

This movie has everything to offend feminists: gratuitous nudity, rape, weaponized sex, torture and ruthless objectification of women. It has plenty to stir the squeamish: flesh shaved by layers, bloody garroting, numerous gashings and what can only be described as naked Flashdance-boarding.

I'm stunned by where this movie dares to go with a star like Lawrence (and female co-stars) at a time like this, nearly as much as I'm impressed by Red Sparrow's total investment in such trashy, grindhouse affairs while maintaining a veneer of high-toned quality. Blood lust and carnality at its classiest. Guilty pleasures as charged.

Lawrence stars as Dominika Egorova, prima ballerina at the Bolshoi whose career is gruesomely cut short. Meanwhile in Gorky Park, CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) makes contact with a Russian mole, attracting attention from Putin's secret police and building tension before the title card. Dominika and Nate face different obstacles to each other.

Dominika's injury means she'll lose her Bolshoi-paid apartment and mother's medical care. Her creepy spy uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers a job as an espionage decoy leading to a scene of sexual violence that practically parodies sexual violence. Dominika and gobsmacked viewers are hooked.

Dominika's goes through "whore school," as she calls it, a training site for "Sparrows," spies using sex to get what they want (attention, Robert Mueller). Sparrow training involves jogging past a firing range and picking locks but mostly it's learning porn star moves. A mixer with long-deployed soldiers goes as expected, videotaped by the matron (nicely icy Charlotte Rampling) and replayed in class. Nobody wants her calling on them.

Dominika is a rebellious student meaning she won't disrobe when the matron orders. She'll await her opportune moment to emasculate a would-be shower rapist, straddling a line between feminist statement and centerfold fantasy. Red Sparrow is never clearer about its provocative purpose, but should be.

Eventually Dominika's new line of work and Nate's mole bring them together, each investigating the other and ditching spy protocol much too easily. Dominika and Nate start spilling secrets on the first date and she agrees to flip loyalties, sealing the deal with more than a kiss.

Red Sparrow takes several salacious detours from there, culminating in a gonzo final act piling one sting on another. Keeps you guessing and panting at the same time. Lawrence loses her Russian accent about as often as her clothes but keeps her dignity. In these hyper-sexy circumstances, that's practically a feminist manifesto.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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