In Red Sparrow, Jennifer Lawrence reunites with Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence for an implausible, violent, but always engrossing foray into a culture riddled with intrigue, deception, betrayal, corruption, and liberal doses of sadism. No, we’re not talking the fictional, post-apocalyptic Panem, but modern-day Russia. Jennifer Lawrence is Dominika famous Russian ballerina who suffers a debilitating, career-ending injury—she also has a sick mother (Joely Richardson) to support and an Uncle Ivan (Mathias Schoenaerts) who is a high-ranking Russian intelligence official. It’s Uncle Ivan’s plan to utilize Dominika as an agent—it’s either that or have her killed after he has forced her to participate in a “mission of seduction” on a Russian politico that ends with her as witnessing the politician’s gruesome garroting (the camera lingers on his murder and his prior rape of Katarina). From there, it’s enduring a crash course in intelligence (Russian-style) from Charlotte Rampling and out to the field, where she proves herself useful in handling all kinds of espionage involving traitors, double-agents, would-be traitors, and so-called patriots.
As mentioned before, Red Sparrow is not always credible, and it’s certainly not the action thriller that last year’s Atomic Blonde aspired to be—however, director Lawrence and screenwriter Justin Haythe (from the novel by Jason Matthew) create an atmospheric, suspenseful, and especially timely thriller. Lawrence’s heroine makes a convincing transition from disillusioned artist and ingenuous victim of (extreme) circumstance to an ingenious, willful heroine who takes her uncle’s admonition to be “three steps ahead” to heart. The clever scenario is structured to keep one guessing about characters’ motivations, whether it’s Joel Edgerton’s soulful, dedicated CIA agent, Schoenhearts’ determined, quietly lethal Ivan, or Jeremy Irons’ quietly ruthless General (and leave us not forget Mary Louise Parker’s temporary comic relief as a senator’s Chief of Staff). It’s true that the scenes of violence and torture can be hard to take (although they’re nowhere near as lengthy as some reviewers have suggested), and a certain climactic scene lacks the impact it might have had--but there are some well-executed twists along the way that help make Red Sparrow, in the end, a pretty satisfying piece of entertainment.
Joel Edgerton also plays a prominent role in Gringo, indeed it’s an Edgerton family affair as brother Nash Edgerton directed this enjoyable, if convoluted (and also barely plausible) caper of a tech company, medical marijuana, a business trip to Mexico gone very, very bad, and the hapless “gringo” who has to devise a way out of a very deadly situation. David Oyelowo (in a welcome comic turn) stars as Harold, a “company man” who turns out to be the fall guy for his unscrupulous bosses (Edgerton and Charlize Theron, both very good) when a merger goes south, leaving some “very bad hombres” to facilitate his immediate removal from planet Earth. It turns out that Edgerton’s desperate boss is screwing his supposed friend Harold, his partner (Theron), and finally, Harold’s wife (Thandie Newton). Harold’s plan to avoid what almost seems like a pre-ordained fate leads to some extremely amusing, and occasionally violent complications, especially after Edgerton’s Rusk dispatches his brother, a “fixer” (engagingly played by Sharlito Copley) to remedy the situation—whether it’s extricating Harold—or something else. Gringo moves swiftly, with some unexpected twists, good comic moments, occasional bursts of violence, and a good cast (which also includes Amanda Seyfried, likable, but under-used) that enables one to care about Harold, even if one doesn’t always believe what is going on.