Jennifer Lawrence heats up the Cold War again in an exploitative, sleazy but righteously entertaining thriller that, after mother!, continues her descent into riskier roles. Reuniting in Red Sparrow with her Hunger Games director Francis Lawrence (no relation), JLaw, complete with trippy Russian accent, is the best reason to see this puerile piece of pulpy fiction as she genuinely rises above the material in a true star turn, almost a page out of Hollywood’s past.

As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), this film, from the bestseller by former CIA operative Jason Matthews, has it all: sex, violence, deception, nudity, spies, two-timing, sleaze and lots of good actors using accents other than their own. It is almost a throwback to the kinky studio dramas some stars were drawn to in the 1960s, when X was a rating and not a Marvel movie franchise (which also stars Lawrence, of course). It’s also got a plot with so many twists and turns that I got whiplash.

Lawrence plays Dominika, a ballerina who, after suffering a career-ending injury onstage, is recruited by her Russian Uncle Vanya (Mathias Schoenaerts) into the Sparrow program aka SVR, in which young men and women are trained to use sex as a weapon in their spy games. Their take-no-prisoners teacher (Charlotte Rampling) uses methods that emphasize sexual power in order to conquer your prey. It’s lurid stuff indeed, but it all goes wrong one night when a mission turns deadly and Dominika is swept in over her head because she simply knows too much.

Enter CIA agent Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who has to flee Russia after his cover is blown as the man getting top secrets from a turncoat. Dominika follows him out of the country in a cat-and-mouse game in order to unveil his mole. Their relationship gets complicated as she plays both sides of the fence and they find themselves in increasing danger. The plot thickens with the emergence of an American chief of staff for a U.S. senator (Mary-Louise Parker), who herself is trading secrets, as well as other players hopping on to this complex web.

20th Century Fox

With actors like Jeremy Irons and Ciaran Hands also on the Russian side of things, Red Sparrow boasts a terrific cast. Each get their moment, but it is Lawrence who shines here in a fully formed and effective turn in a role that might not be Katniss-nip for her fan base but pays off big time. It’s more sex games than Hunger Games on this one, but she’s convincing throughout in a part that could have dissolved into camp.

The script by Justin Haythe sacrifices a lot of the book’s more pedantic detail but gets right to the heart of why we want to spend time in this world. Beware, though: Red Sparrow does not skimp on the violence, including some over-the-top torture scenes that go on way too long and look like they might belong better in an Eli Roth horror movie. Peter Chernin, Jenno Topping, Steve Zaillian and David Ready produced the film, which 20th Century Fox releases Friday.

Do you plan to see Red Sparrow? Let us know what you think.