Red Sparrow is real dumb. We can and shall go into why that is the case, but it seemed important to get that read into the record as soon as possible. I cannot say how much of that dumbness was intrinsic to the 2013 source novel by Jason Matthews, and how much was introduced by screenwriter Justin Haythe (a veteran of a most idiosyncratic career that includes things from Revolutionary Road to A Cure for Wellness); but it is so, either way. Herein, we have the story of a reluctant Russian sex spy, who after becoming victim of a conspiracy to derail her ballet career is forced to compromise herself to keep her sick mother safe. And you know, for all this is dumb, there's a version of it that's still good, I bet: one that is a great deal tackier and sleazier, for sure, or at least (because this is already a pretty tacky, sleazy movie) one that has a shorter running time and is less diluted in its crassness.

The other thing, besides dumb: this has a shockingly insufficient script. The most conspicuous lack is structural. Red Sparrow is basically two distinct movies, unified only by the presence of our aforementioned tragic ballerina, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence). The first movie finds her dealing with the seemingly accidental attack that renders her useless to the state and the Bolshoi (among the film's most pridefully dumb touches: it recognises not a glimmer of difference between the Soviet Union and Russia in the 2010s, until it does, and then doesn't again), pleading with her creepy uncle Vanya* (Matthias Schoenaerts), a government intelligence officer, to help her out, which he does by tricking her into serving as a honeypot in a sting operation to kill a politician. Now that she's a witness, her only options are to die, or to learn how to be a "Sparrow", part of a program started during the Khrushchev regime, which trains gorgeous young men and women to be perfect sexual enticements, able to detect the secret desires of any mark. Under the cold tutelage of a nameless woman played by Charlotte Rampling (who is obviously having a fun time camping it up), Dominika is trained as, basically, a killer whore.

I would assume, maybe unfairly, that "highly trained Russian sex spies" would be a sudsy enough, tawdry enough plot hook that you wouldn't actually need to abandon it midway through, and this is where the movie proves me wrong. Because after a couple of months, Dominika is plucked back out by Vanya and his superior, General Korchnoi (Jeremy Irons), to do a bit of a Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy routine: there's an American CIA agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who has been running an operation using a high-placed member of Russian intelligence as his contact. Dominika's job: make contact with Nate, and trick him to falling in love with her so that he'll tell her who the mole is. Instead, she begins a complicated back-and-forth series of betrayals during which we never know for sure whether she's lying to the Americans on behalf of the Russians, or lying to the Russians on behalf of the Americans; we know only that she pretty much hates everybody but her mom and perhaps Nate, but perhaps not.

The film is clumsy and confused, first at the macro-level: so is it a sordid sexploitation flick about Russians trained in erotic espionage (Lawrence goes topless, and a penis is seen for a few seconds)? Because that can't help but make an impression for the hour-ish that it dominates. But once the secondary plot kicks in, that part of the film basically evaporates, and no matter how many times an American growls "she's a sparrow!", the idea of a primarily sex-driven approach to spying is quite abandoned, in favor of rehashed Le Carré (or even just rehashed Atomic Blonde, with less style and incomparably worse action).

Worse still, it's confused at a smaller and more pernicious level, primarily around the issue of whose film this is and when. Obviously, it's Dominika's story in the main: we see what she sees, care about what she cares about, and suffer with her humilations. And yet, for the entire second half of the film, we are kept completely outside of her head and deprived of her knowledge, in a way that makes it very clear that we're not permitted to identify with her. Leaving... Nate? But that character, despite all the movie's desperate attempts to shore him up with some busy cross-cutting, and many expository scenes with the CIA, is an utter cipher, whose interests beyond the most obvious attraction to a beautiful woman are left totally unexamined (there's a bit about how the Americans, being the good guys, won't ever leave an ally behind, and so he's driven by guilt about his mole; but this kind of rah-rah gung-ho thing almost immediately chokes to death in the face of the crushing cynicism the film offers). This doesn't even have to be about audience identification to be a problem: we spend way the hell too much time with Nash as a protagonist for him to be so wholly without depth or characterisation.

The rejection of character interiority mostly only serves to make the plot seem needless complex; the shift from sexploitation to spy thriller leaves the film totally without a tone or personality. At a few places, the movie goes for a terrifically violent, gory setpieces, and these are the only place where director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer, except that he directed her in three Hunger Games pictures) seems to perk up much. But they're mostly just nasty, particularly a torture scene that has almost an anti-function in the plot: in a movie with many scenes that mostly exist just to mislead or distract the audience, the big torture showcase actually requires one character to act in a way that's strategically foolish and wrong just so that the viewer gets a shock moment.

In all of these muck, there are some gems. One of these is the fantastic opening, cutting between Dominika's fateful ballet performance and Nate's terrible mistake that endangers his contact, with the ballet music rising in tension as the two plot lines converge on failure and violence; another is the closing sequence, which brings back classical music for a quick little coda that (the film's actual climax could have been fantastic, if not for some choppy editing and some insultingly obvious flashbacks). Jennifer Lawrence is also pretty damn good at playing a prickly, touch-skinned character who is constantly flashing to us the vulnerability she manifestly will not show to other characters; the only weak spot is her goofball Russian accent, neither the worst nor best in a film that seemingly has decided that Boris-and-Natasha-style voicework is going to be a primary stylistic element.

There's something salvageable in here: a more tawdry sex romp would have been fun; a more balanced, honest, tightly-plotted spy thriller could have been brainy, especially if the filmmakers had put actual thought into updating Cold War power games for the modern world. Instead, the Red Sparrow we get is a long, erratic bore: too prim and too repulsive by turns, incomprehensible at character, muddily told. It looks sleek, with all its chilled Hungarian locations, and it has the good sense to start and end with its best material, to craft the illusion that it's better than is the case; but the best of the film is still not nearly good enough to make one feel happy about the apparent state of the spy movie in 2018.