MARCH 2, 2018 -- Contrary to what many younger folk might think, Jennifer Lawrence's latest vehicle isn't a reshoot of Charleze Theron's "Atomic Blonde"; though Lawrence dons a blond do and does pack a punch. This story has much more substance than last years overblown actioner.


No, old timers will recognize director Francis Lawrence's (no relation to Jennifer) espionage thriller as leaning more toward the 1965 Richard Burton flick, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold"... only with a much better looking lead. It is an adaptation of Jason Matthews novel of the same name, which is book one of a spy trilogy centered around sexy Russian super spy Dominika Egorova. In fact, it has more in common with Byung-gil Jung's "The Villainess" in the development of the woman into a spy.


Dominika is a Russian prima ballerina - fulfilling her life's dream of dancing for the state sponsored ballet company - when, during a performance, her career is cut short by a near-crippling accident. As a result she is left unable to dance, currently living in an apartment owned by the ballet company and reliant on the premium medical care for her sickly mother (Joely Richardson).

She is approached by her suspicious uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is a Putin-looking director with the Russian spy network [presumably the KGB though it is never identified]. He first offers pity on her injury before tasking her to "do him a favor" to go out with a Russian big shot in order to milk some info from him. If she does that, he'll make arrangements for her to keep her apartment and for her mother to continue getting her medical therapy.


She agrees and of course, it's a trick to force her into servitude for Vanya as a seductress for her country. She is then trained on the nuances of seduction for secrets under the tutelage of Charlotte Rampling's Matron character who is every bit the coldest madam created. The motivation she uses for her charges is a bullet to the head. But even under that threat, Dominika turns out to be tougher than anyone thought. Tough enough to start her first project earlier.


Her assignment is to seduce an American CIA operative named Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) who has an unknown Russian insider spilling his guts about everything going on in Russia's high command. They need Dominika to find out who the mole is by seducing Nash and gaining his confidence. Observing from the cheap seats are Ciaran Hines as Zahkarov, a Russian higher up; Bill Camp as Marty Gable, Nash's boss; and Jeremy Irons as Russian Genral Korchnoi. To any one of them she is expendable, but especially her uncle Vanya.


There is a suitable amount of action, though far less than "The Villainess" and "Atomic Blonde" but far more than "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" [thankfully] and much better character development than Theron's Blonde. Lawrence's Dominika has much more depth and generates much more interest, even with her cartoonish Russian accent that is only slightly better than Cate Blanchett's Irina character from "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull". The audience will admire her grit and sympathize with her predicament even though it seems to be a no-win scenario.


Schoenarts works perfectly as her piece-o-crap uncle and Rampling is exquisite as Dominika's supervisor who is quietly cheering for Dominika, but still ready to put a bullet in her head. However, Edgerton's Nash feels like a color-by-numbers Hollywood spy when compaired to Lawrence's much more developed character. There is nothing believable about him, nor do we ever care about him.


It will be interesting to see if Edgerton remains as Nash throughout the trilogy or if Nash is re-cast and better developed. But Lawrence is rock solid.


"Red Sparrow" is a thrilling espionage drama with solid pacing, adequate action and Jennifer Lawrence giving yet another sterling performance. She keeps the trend for strong female leads moving forward.   -- GRADE B+  --   GEOFF BURTON