★★★ ½

There is a difference between a stoic disposition and being just plain stone-faced. Jennifer Lawrence clearly does not know this. Throughout Red Sparrow, in which she plays the lead role of Dominika Egorova, she seems determined to move her face as little possible, especially during the moments in which one imagines her character is experiencing great emotional tumult. Whatever it is she is trying to do, she’s certainly outmatched by her co-star Joel Edgerton, whose performance as CIA agent Nate Nash comes off as an actual human being compared to Lawrence’s Russian-spy robot. Nevertheless, this and a few other shortcomings can be overlooked and Red Sparrow can be deemed a successful spy film.

It succeeds because it repeatedly builds crescendos of tension. During clandestine exchanges, safe-house invasions, torture-driven interrogations, and several junctures during which characters must decide whether to cut and run to save their own hides or push deeper into some subterfuge to go for the big payoff, the film rattles viewers’ nerves as we bounce around Moscow, Vienna, Budapest, and London.

Red Sparrow boasts an exceedingly strong supporting cast, which includes Jeremy Irons, Mary-Louise Parker, and Charlotte Rampling. Parker doesn’t get much screen time, but makes the most of what she does get as Stephanie Boucher, a somewhat hapless but ethically challenged government staffer. Irons is superb as General Korchnoi, a man at the highest level of the chain of command above Dominika, and Rampling plays the severe headmistress of a spy school to a T.

However, the film stumbles in taking so long to set up its plot that it actually feels like two different movies. Dominika’s journey into the world of spycraft is a rather tragic and twisted one, and while this story is interesting in and of itself, it isn’t really necessary since Red Sparrow ends up treating it like just a prologue for the main tale. The opening act also has a sort of clunky feel to it, as if the filmmakers knew it only existed for expositional purposes and they didn’t have to be as artful regarding its execution.

It might seem like a bit of a stretch that a film could land in the “still worth watching” category despite a perplexing performance by its lead actress, but chalk it up to the strength of what Red Sparrow does right that this recommendation can be made with a straight face. It’s possible there are other things a spy movie could do, but as for what we know a spy movie should do, it’s all here.