Sometimes you watch a movie and just wonder, “Why?” Sometimes that means, “Why can’t this cinematic glory go on forever?” Or “Why must this film rip out my heart and make me like it?” Or “Why did anyone sign onto this nothing-burger of a movie?” Sadly, Ava inspires only this last question.
Following in the footsteps of The Girl on the Train and Mama, Ava is the latest underwhelming thriller from Tate Taylor, who broke through with his critically heralded period-drama The Help. Here, he reteams with Jessica Chastain for a tale of a female assassin who develops feelings. Imagine Killing Eve but heteronormative and listless, and you’ll have some idea of what’s in store.
Chastain’s Ava is a mercenary who has spent the last eight years running from her family and flinging herself into deadly missions around the globe. She’s a skilled killer, but her focus is slipping as she questions why her marks are being targeted. This won’t lead Ava into any kind of interesting investigation into the black ops organization for which she kills. Instead, it pushes her back to Boston to face the sister (Jess Weixler), mother (Geena Davis), and ex-fiancé (Common) that she abandoned without warning.
Amid passive-aggressive mother-daughter moments, an achingly awkward dinner date, and an underground gambling den, Ava must confront her past and trespasses. Meanwhile, Ava’s future with the agency is being determined without her. A mustachioed higher-up called Simon (Colin Farrell) oozes gangster vibes as he steps away from his son’s christening celebration to hear out her handler Duke (John Malkovich), who insists this hot-blooded redhead just needs a chance to cool down. Their conflict will spill over into Boston, where Ava will have to use her very particular set of skills to keep her loved ones alive.
On paper, this sounds like good stuff! Just imagine Jessica Chastain as a sexy spy who employs her signature smile and dazzling charm to lure in bad men, then swiftly murder them. Adding pathos into the mix is a tragic backstory and ties that bind to the point of suffocation. Then, heap in Geena Davis as a mean mommy, Common as a heartbroken hunk, Farrell as an eccentric crime boss, and John Malkovich. Period. This should be great! So, why why why is it so damn dull!?!
Simply put, the script by Matthew Newton sucks. It feels like a pastiche of a parade of ’80s action flicks fed through a politically correct filter that stridently steps away from sex kitten clichés, yet doesn’t step near anything interesting to replace them. Instead, Ava feels like the whisper of a character, made up chiefly of glowers and a backstory of Daddy Issues. There, Newton almost nears a connective theme. Burned by her late father’s bad behavior, Ava found direction under Duke, who gives her assignments while fly-fishing and warmly calls her “kiddo.” Her search for paternal validation is reflected in the journey of Simon’s grown daughter Camille (Ma’s Diana Silvers). However, instead having them face off, Ava casts the latter aside so she’s little more than sequel setup. Then, this story plods into soggy terrain.
Ava becomes one part family drama, with its anti-heroine dodging gunfire and withering barbs from her surly mother. There might have been something strange and exciting brewed from these different brands of attack, but Newton’s script makes Ava consistently sulking and sullen, leaving Chastain little to do beyond pout and punch. Oh, and those punches.
The fight scenes here are so poorly executed they’re almost funny. The coverage shot by Stephen Goldblatt feels chaotic, as if he was unaware where the fight choreography would hurl his subjects. The editing by Zach Staenberg does this footage no favors, ranging from senseless to stodgy. A ramp effect could have made some of these blows hit harder visually, but as is they feel like we’re watching a rehearsal. Stunt double Amy Johnston is capable with the choreography, but is clearly buffer than Chastain, so shots that linger on her exposed back and arms break the fantasy that the film star is the one in the fray.
It’s not all bad – the supporting cast won’t allow for that. Like Chastain, Silvers is given too little to do. Still, it’s thrilling to see her dark eyes threaten a fight. Common is smoothly sultry and brings a nuanced ache to his small role, while Weixler offers a sparking charisma and righteous rage that makes the sister come alive, though her dialogue is chiefly whining. As for Malkovich, he cruises on a cozy dad vibe edged with a haunting awareness of life-or-death stakes. Meanwhile, Farrell sizzles with threat whether he’s playing with a baby or snapping a grisly cellphone pic. Yet the film’s MVP, hands down, is Davis. Outside of The Long Kiss Goodnight, she has often played the sweetheart, but here seems wickedly delighted to sink her teeth into the role of a mother who slings backhanded compliments with the same relish as a deck of cards. From her first crooked smile, Davis promises to raise this film’s standards, and does so every time she reappears. Sadly, she too is underused.
All in all, Ava is an unforgivable disaster. Tate was entrusted with an impeccable cast and an intriguing premise, but delivered an astoundingly bland action-thriller. Newton deserves blame for the abysmal script that’s dialogue feels like a regurgitation of a half-forgotten Luc Besson outing. Yet Tate is to blame for turning in a film that lacks impactful fight scenes, visual flare, and emotional resonance. Here is a so-called thriller stuffed with stars world famous for their charisma and/or bombastic performances. Yet what Tate turned in is a bumbling and banal flick that its stars will likely hope you politely overlook.
“Ava” is available today in theaters, at drive-ins, and on demand.