Thursday, March 15, 2018

Red Sparrow

From Russia, With (JLaw)ve
Welcome to the Trump Nightmare

If prostitution is the world's oldest profession, "honey-trap" is probably the second. That conceit of deceit is such a useful tool of spy-craft (and entertainment about it) that one doesn't need look over the "spy" or "thriller" genre even shallowly before running into it (the first review of this month featured Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler from 1922 which had it, and in Hitchcock films, there's Notorious and North by Northwest, it's in the second of the James Bond films and the first of the novels and on and on and on). In films, the concept has always been played for romance, cheap thrills, and instilling some sense of sex and intrigue and the potential of betrayal into the thriller mix. It's a trope of the movies and thrillers, for god's sakes.

That's why it's so damn amusing to see all the "Aunt Flo's" on the internet having their hissy-fits and purple hemorrhages over Red Sparrow, the new spy thriller (based on a book—the first of ANOTHER trilogy—written by former CIA op Jason Matthews), re-teaming director Francis Lawrence (he did the Will Smith I am Legend and Water for Elephants) with his "Hunger Games" star Jennifer (no relation) Lawrence. The difference is Matthews wasn't working to amuse, but to paint a darker, colder, and more realistic "take" on the sordid business of finding an opponent's weak-spot and exploiting it, a strategy that employs all sexes and permutations. The "honey-trap" business was the first to embrace the LGBTQ community without any discrimination, whatsoever (as opposed to our military who preferred homophobia to national security after the 9-11 attacks by dismissing much-needed Farsi translators if they were gay). This is a point that Red Sparrow brings up, but does not exploit. If they had, I think there would have been less squawking about Jennifer Lawrence and the bloody violence and the sexual manipulation. Maybe. Maybe, it's because people don't like their romantic tropes and fairy-tales punctured.
Dominika Egorova (Lawrence, Jennifer Lawrence) is living the good life in Moscow. She is the prima ballerina at the Bolshoi Ballet, toasted by everyone, and feted by party officials. The position provides a good apartment downtown and medical care for her Mother, Nina (Joely Richardson), who is suffering from...we're never sure what. During her performance at the opening gala, her dancing partner, Konstantin (Sergei Polunin) lands on her leg, snapping it, effectively ending her career...and with that, will go the apartment and her Mother's care.
Dominika is approached by her Uncle Vanya (heh...oh, he's played by Matthias Schoenaerts) who is high up in Soviet Intelligence. He is (of course) sympathetic to Dominika's plight, but gives her a chance that she might be able to take care of her Mother. He has a little assignment: He wants her to seduce a Party official and replace his phone with one provided by the SRV, so they can plunder his information, but also track him and...maybe find out his voting patterns. It's sure not anything to do with Russian orphans. Just saying. He also tells her that her rival at the Bolshoi is now the prima performer, and has long been rumored to be involved with the dancer who broke Dominika's leg. It is Vanya's opinion that Dominika was "I, Tonya'd"
Dominika sneaks into the Bolshoi one night, not completely healed from her leg injury, walking on crutches. When Konstantin and her rival, Anya, are finished with their practice, she waits, and finds them in the sauna snogging. Using her cane, she attacks Anya, breaking her jaw, and beats Konstantin, effectively crippling him. Vonya notes the coincidence of the attacks, but says nothing. Dominika has a job to do.
Once she is back on her feet, a dress is provided, a room booked at a swanky hotel, and a time when the official, Ustinov, will be there. She is given the phone, but has no idea what the device will do. Her main concern is attracting the attention of Ustinov. She needn't have worried...Ustinov has left his party and is buying her a drink within two minutes of her sitting at the bar.
It is simplest of matters to convince Ustinov that she will do what he wants if he can provide medical assistance for her Mother...but she doesn't anticipate how aggressive a predator Ustinov is. Before she can even think about replacing the phones, Ustinov is attacking her. But, he is interrupted by a masked figure wrapping a wire around his throat and strangling him, his blood falling on Dominika who can only look on with horror. The masked man, an assassin named Simyonov (Sergej Onopko) tosses her some clothes, a motorcycle helmet, and an escape route past Ustinov's guards, and brought to a secure location where she is told by Vanya that the rendezvous was always going to be a "hit," that she wasn't informed to get her cooperation and, now that she's the only witness to the murder, her life will be in constant danger from intelligence officers...unless she becomes one of them. Dominika has no choice but to be sent to "Sparrow School."
Dominika has another term for it: "whore school," but for her safety and her Mother's, she goes to the remote location, where she is greeted by "Matron" (Charlotte Rampling) and she is told that her "body belongs to the state," and she and her fellow-recruits, male and female, will be taught espionage skills and the fine art of manipulating human beings to their purposes. But, first, they have to be broken down, their past lives forgotten, their attitudes erased, their inhibitions discarded—they belong to Mother Russia now, which (as Matron explains) must take the place as the supreme power of the world, given the breakdown of the West.

It's at this point, that it all clicked into place for me; Red Sparrow is merely Ian Fleming's From Russia With Love from the "honey-pot" point of view. The scenes with "Matron" have an eerie, creepy similarity and Rampling's play-book for her performance in her role is very similar to Lotte Lenya's (she played the Russian Colonel Klebb, who recruits the girl—also a former ballet dancer to the task of seducing a spy from the other side). And, damn, if that isn't the exact same assignment Dominika is given; a CIA agent, Nate Nash (don't laugh...he's played by Joel Edgerten) has been making regular contact with a Soviet spy named Marble (??) but after a suspicious meeting in Gorky Park, Nash has managed to escape and fled the country. His contact has made it plain that he will only deal with Nash, who is now stationed in Budapest, and it is up to Dominika to find the agent and find out who "Marble" is, so that he can be eliminated. Just like From Russia With Love. But, without the gadgets. Or the quips. Or the train. 
One of the handful of times Lawrence smiles in the film.
Or the fun, for that matter. You can count on one bloody hand-print how many times Lawrence smiles in this film—her face is usually a determined inscrutability, a mask that hides what she's thinking or where her loyalties lie, which is important to the drama, and her words? She says what will gain her the most advantage, saying what everyone wants her to say.  But, it is a tough film and Dominika is ruthless, but not in an action-cartoon sort of way (like Salt or Atomic Blonde or even as "the Black Widow" is presented in the Marvel films. The fights are not balletic, the violence is...messy and bloody. There is one particularly grueling fight that seems to take as its inspiration the killing of Gromek in Hitchcock's Torn Curtain—not as stylized, though—that has its central thesis just how hard it actually is to kill someone.  
In fact, the film is brutal in ways that will make you wince...a lot. Matthews wanted to portray a more realistic spy-world where water-boarding is just a prelude for nastier ways to extract information and it is anything but glamorous. In fact, be prepared to be repulsed. There are no "nerve agents" in Red Sparrow, but the deep-rooted Soviet animus inherent in such attacks—as recent as last week's in Salisbury are very much evident. The graphic garrotings and flayings employed by the Simyonov character are merciless, and, in fact, the whole movie's tone is that way, even that of the movie's protagonist.
But it feels more "right" (or should we say "appropriate") for the movie to take this tact when morality is the farthest thing from any objective being portrayed. It's a world of blackmail and cold manipulation, and even if it does have a "kicker" that might be satisfying to an audience, one can take no pleasure in it...or the movie.
Director Lawrence makes the thing look great and he has a good cast—I haven't even mentioned that Jeremy Irons and Ciaràn Hinds are in it as high Russian functionaries—Edgerton is a bit bland, but then, he's supposed to be, and Lawrence manages to make her sparrow vulnerable when she needs to be (in the first part of the film) and deliberately opaque during the rest of the film's course, while, for the most part, keeping her Russian dialect—as tough to sell (think of Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) as any accent there is. She's always interesting to watch, always making tough choices, and capable of even making her state-run little monster relatable.

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