Have you ever wanted to see Colin Farrell and John Malkovich in a brutal mano a mano? Or Jessica Chastain beat up a French killer in a Boston park after dark, or get into a catfight with fierce nightclub-cum-gambling-den owner Joan Chen? Ava, directed by Tate Taylor (The Help, Ma), gives you all that and more.
And yet despite those obvious highlights, it’s hard to recommend Ava as a whole. The action scenes are often flat, and Chastain’s top-class assassin character and her family and colleagues are burdened with so many dramatic backstories — Alcoholism! Drugs! Daddy issues! A jilted lover now engaged to her sibling! — that the whole exercise starts to feel more than faintly ridiculous even before the first act is over.
It’s a shame, because Chastain, in full-on, dark-side Zero Dark Thirty mode, kicks ass with the best of them. Indeed, with a better screenplay, this could have been the start of a female Bourne-type franchise. Ava is being rolled out in star-starved European cinemas over the course of the summer before a Stateside bow scheduled for late September.
Bostonian tough girl and former army recruit Ava (Chastain) used to be a drug addict and alcoholic (“eight years ago,” as characters keep insisting, as if the mention were some kind of drinking-game trigger). Now, Ava’s the best killer working for Duke (Malkovich), who is aware of her past and its risks but has a fatherly soft spot for her. Besides Duke, the only other person from the vague black-ops organization we get to meet is Simon (Farrell), who was Duke’s disciple before Ava — an Ava avant la lettre if you will.
When a routine operation at the German Embassy in Riyadh goes haywire, Ava manages to get out. But people are now after her, too. This is somewhat inconvenient for Ava, who has returned to the relative quiet of her family in Boston after years of supposedly working deadly boring jobs abroad (the script never quite manages to turn this into a running gag). That means trying to patch things up with her sister Jude (Jess Weixler), who’s pissed she didn’t come home for Dad’s recent funeral; their aloof mom (Geena Davis), who’s been hospitalized; and unlucky good egg Michael (Common), who used to date Ava but who — after Ava inexplicably “fled” abroad — is now in a relationship with Jude.
It not only feels like there’s too much family trauma to keep track of, but also that none of these subplots has enough space to develop into something resonant. A standout scene in which Chastain and Davis hash out their mother-daughter issues, for example, is all we get. The scene would have been far more effective as either the starting point or conclusion of a more complex storyline that could have suggested something about the two characters’ parallel positions as supposedly selfish women living in a man’s world.
Something similar could be said about Ava’s thorny relationship with both her sister and Michael. But Ava’s major confession concerning those storylines somewhat bafflingly occurs during a fistfight with a third party, when Jude and her man aren’t even present. It’s another demonstration of how the film tries but fails to blend soapy, almost-too-much family drama with high-octane action — often from one scene to the next without much transition, but sometimes, even more awkwardly, all within the same scene.
The film’s competent stunts and action sequences are of the grittier Bourne variety, with hand-to-hand combat often preferred to guns and explosions. But the glossy cinematography from Stephen Goldblatt, another The Help alumnus, and the editing by Zach Staenberg (The Matrix) never manage to impart the same visceral thrills that are the hallmark of Paul Greengrass’ action cinema. The score, courtesy of Bear McCreary, is sleekly generic.
Chastain is utterly convincing in another tough-as-nails role. If audiences stick with the movie, it’s largely thanks to her movie-star charisma, which almost compensates for the increasingly ridiculous plot. Malkovich and Farrell seem to understand they are A-list talent in B-movie roles, and relish the opportunity. With the exception of Joan Chen, who can do no wrong, the actors making up the Boston homefront are on less sure footing, though this doubtless has to do at least as much with the script as anything else.
For the record, Ava was originally called Eve and was set up as a directing vehicle for its screenwriter, Matthew Newton (who wrote and directed Who We Are Now, with Julianne Nicholson). Taylor replaced him at the last minute after an alleged #MeToo situation from Newton’s past forced him to step aside.
Production companies: Freckle Films, Voltage Pictures
U.S. distribution: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Geena Davis, Jess Weixler, Joan Chen, Ioan Gruffud, Diana Silvers, Efka Kvaraciejus
Director: Tate Taylor
Screenplay: Matthew Newton
Producers: Jessica Chastain, Kelly Carmichael, Nicolas Chartier, Dominic Rustam
Executive producers: Jonathan Deckter, William Earon, Erika Hampson, John Norris
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Production design: Molly Hughes
Costume design: Megan Coates
Editing: Zach Staenberg
Music: Bear McCreary
Casting: Neely Eisenstein, Lindsey Weissmuller
In English, German, Arabic
Rated R, 96 minutes