Jessica Chastain in Ava.
Photo: Vertical Entertainment
Look, sometimes this shit just doesn’t work out. Personally, I was quite excited at one point for a female assassin thriller featuring Jessica Chastain facing off against Colin Farrell, with John Malkovich playing her handler. One of our most expressive actresses joining two of our most insistent hams in an action movie? How do you screw something like that up?
Well, maybe by just stopping at the concept and calling it a day. To be fair, Ava’s provenance was somewhat troubled — it was supposed to be directed by Australian writer-director Matthew Newton (who retains a screenwriting credit) until a variety of assault charges against him reemerged and he was replaced behind the camera by Tate Taylor, who had directed Chastain in 2011’s The Help, one of her breakout roles. Taylor isn’t necessarily a bad filmmaker; The Help may be mediocre, but his Chadwick Boseman–starring 2014 James Brown biopic Get on Up was surprisingly lively and inventive. Still, it’s perhaps understandable, though not exactly forgivable, if Taylor saw this gig as a pro-forma favor instead of an actual creative endeavor.
That might sound mean, but what’s onscreen — choppy, lifeless, predictable action scenes jutting up against unbaked, middle-school-theater-production-level family drama — is quite damning in its own right. Chastain’s titular hit-woman, apparently the best in the business, has only recently returned to the field after being sidelined due to a crisis of conscience and a bout of alcoholism. But her crisis continues: She’s still asking her marks about what they did to deserve a high-priced, elaborate assassination.
That may have been an interesting idea at some point. Onscreen, it comes off not as complicated evidence of Ava’s submerged humanity but rather an additional dose of sadism. The direction is an issue there, but so is the screenwriting and the acting: Ava’s growing sense of regret is treated as a plot contrivance, not backed up with any additional emotional depth. As great as Chastain is at looking sad, there isn’t much she can do with this empty a character. And while we know that she can be a tremendously gifted physical performer — one need look no further than Crimson Peak for evidence of that — alas, Ava abandons her there, too, sidelining the actress with its programmatic, thoroughly uninspired action scenes.
Turns out, upper-level management isn’t happy about that whole asking-targets-about-their-sins situation either. Even though Ava’s avuncular, immediate boss Duke (Malkovich) sticks up for her, his boss, Farrell’s smug, housebound Irish patriarch Simon, has decided to do away with their prize killer. (These two, to be fair, get one of the best scenes in the film. I won’t tell you what happens, other than the fact that Colin Farrell gets to crack a giant, insane smile.) Meanwhile, Ava returns home, where she attempts to reconcile with her estranged sister (Jess Weixler), who is now engaged to Ava’s ex-boyfriend Mike (Common). She also discovers that her mom (Geena Davis) has just had a heart attack. Also, Mike has a gambling problem and he likes to disappear for days into a giant gambling den/night-club run by shady gangster (Joan Chen). That’s right. This movie even has Geena Davis and Joan Chen in it! You’d think it would do something interesting with them.
At times, one wonders if Ava is trying to anti- itself into respectability, as if somehow undermining its own action scenes and scuttling its own belabored subplots and doing away with anything that might resemble a second act is a form of resistance against the predictability of action movies. A nightclub battle late in the film feels like it’s going to turn into one of those techno-fueled, hyper-rhythmic spectacles of slaughter a la Collateral or John Wick, only to peter out before it even gets started. Is that supposed to be an act of subversion? Because it comes off as incompetence. In order to subvert something … you have to subvert it, confront it with something of equal (or, even better, greater) creative force. Nothing in Ava feels that calculated. It feels like a movie where everybody involved just gave up halfway through.