Movies to Watch With Red Sparrow

In the grand tradition of Spy vs Spy, Jennifer Lawrence plays a ballerina-turned-undercover-operative in Red Sparrow, a Russian agent who falls for CIA spook Nate Nash (“Nash, out!”), played by Joel Edgerton. It’s also a glowering action reunion for her and director Francis Lawrence, who helmed a triptych of Hunger Games movies, and, by most accounts, is a Soviet tank-full of style over substance.

There are thousands of spy movies to pair with it, and most of them involve Russia (really, the Soviet Union) ferreting into sticky situations to get information on Americans that will probably yell “Wolverines!” while thwarting them in the end. The tricky thing is considering how few female-led spy films there are compared to the grand list of one of the most popular modern genres. Red Sparrow is rare on that front, but there are plenty of other connections to make.

Here are some movies to watch alongside Lawrence’s descent into deep cover.

Notorious (1946)

Josh Spiegel caught the nods to Hitchcock’s best love story in his Red Sparrow review, and they’re spot on. Of course it would be hard to make any spy movie without at least a flavor of what Hitchcock pulled off with a dozen films just before and during WWII. The connection is even stronger when you consider that it’s Ingrid Bergman and not Cary Grant that stars in Notorious.

The film sees Bergman as an American, whose father was a convicted Nazi spy, recruited (by Grant’s character) to penetrate a Nazi group hiding in South America. Heinous, secret intentions, seduction, and mortal peril are all on the menu, as is a wine cellar that Grant and Bergman absolutely must get into. It’s an icon of two people, deeply in love, who can’t tell if each others’ love is part of their cover story.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965)

It would be absurd to leave this off the roster. This, the gold standard of John le Carré espionage thrillers adapted into the gold standard of Cold War spy movies, is a taut exploration of loyalty.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold stars Richard Burton at his saltiest, playing West Berlin MI6 station chief Alec Leamas, who gets summarily bounced from the service after losing one of his operatives. A free agent carrying all those secrets around the haunted streets of Europe? Communists in East Berlin soon make contact and make their move in the deadly game of three-dimensional chess. It’s moody and powerful, and the ending is like having your head dunked in chilled vodka.

Salt (2010)

The great irony of Salt is that, if they’d stuck with the original star, Tom Cruise, there would be three sequels by now by sheer force of his dedication to riding on top of planes and such. Which is a shame. It adds to the tragedy of this pile of sneering twists being so deeply underrated. Angelina Jolie was an interesting upgrade on Cruise, bringing a depth to Evelyn Salt, the cracker jack American spy who is fingered as an ultra-deep Russian sleeper agent planning to kill the Russian president and help destabilize the US.

Kurt Wimmer’s script gets full marks for barreling through the typical insinuations and winks of the genre before committing to some jaw-dropping revelations. It’s beguiling and confusing not because of what’s only whispered in smoky rooms, but because of what’s shouted during gun fights.

Paris By Night (1988)

In Red Sparrow, Charlotte Rampling plays Matron, the leader of the Sparrow School that trains men and women how to use sex and violence to infiltrate. In Paris By Night, Rampling played the stuffy European Union MP Clara Paige, who gets drawn into personal and political drama following a murder and suggestions of a covered-up scandal.

It’s not a spy story, but it’s criminal how this magnificent gem has been relegated to the dustbin. There’s not even a good DVD pressing out there. But, if you’re able to find it somewhere, give it a shot. Rampling is a force of nature, Michael Gambon stretches his legs as her pathetic husband, and the story is a percussive blast.

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982)

Had to do it. Red Sparrow‘s contribution to this world is Jennifer Lawrence yelling that she was sent “to whore school,” which all but makes it a spiritual sequel.

In the raucous musical, Dolly Parton plays the madam of the Chicken Ranch, a local institution of ill-repute that finds itself at the center of controversy when its presence is announced to the outside world by the crusading Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise). Burt Reynolds plays a Burt Reynolds-esque sheriff who’s in love with Parton’s character, which makes sense because she’s played by Dolly Parton. There’s no espionage, but there’s a ton of local political intrigue and seduction.

Le Femme Nikita (1990)

 

When people who fake your death give you the option of becoming an assassin or dying, you grab the nearest gun and get some training.

Luc Besson had a knack for this kind of murderous nihilism and shadowy stakes in the 90s. The Professional makes all the top ten lists, but Nikita belongs in the same conversations because of Anne Parillaud’s phenomenal turn as the anarchic junkie transformed into a world class assassin with killer fashion sense.

The Mix

There’s an esteemed history of liars and deceivers on screen, fooling their marks and the audience simultaneously. They usually come from the dank streets and broken homes to a life of black eyes and compromised morals in service of the protective state — which they either grow to hate and rebel against or continue to serve unquestioningly.

Spy stories are always about hidden things, but they are also often about transformations. The lesson that someone can become a crouching machine of death and knowledge with the right training and ice in their veins. The question is what you’re willing to compromise to live a romanticized life on the edge of a knife.

What movies are you watching with Red Sparrow?

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