Mladen and Del review ‘Ava’

Image courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

“Ava” Starring Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Common and others. Directed by Tate Taylor. 96 minutes. Rated R. Netflix.

Mladen’s take

“Ava,” starring Jessica Chastain as a hitwoman, gets good about halfway through the 96-minute movie. What’s the halfway grade on the scale from A to F? Correct. C. That’s the grade the movie gets from me.

Chastain is a very good actress, but what’s with very good actresses heading toward middle-middle to late-middle age and the urge to do action thrillers? We have Angelina Jolie as “Salt.” We have Charlize Theron as the matriarch of “The Old Guard.” Jennifer Garner is “Peppermint.” I imagine you can name others. Are Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson convincing as kick-your-ass man killers when they look their skins have turned to leather and their muscles are rippled rather than ripped? I loved the “The Expendables” trilogy, but only Antonio Banderas in TE3 looked somewhat like he was nimble enough to dodge bullets.

Ava is a former drunkard and Army super-soldier recruited by one of her then-commanders – played convincingly by John Malkovich as Duke until he fights and nearly kicks the shit out of much younger Simon (Colin Farrell) – to be the assassinator of guys who’ve done serious wrongs but avoided prison time. Simon is the head of the organization that arranges the hits. Duke and Ava, who are friends, too, are employees of said company.

We are led to believe that in most instances Ava moves in, takes out her target, and moves out with barely a ripple in the Force. But, of late, she’s started asking her marks what they had done that warranted the application of her skills before she applied them. For some reason, Simon is disturbed by Ava’s curiosity.

Between offing prominent baddies, Ava struggles with staying sober, tries to bed her sister’s fiancé (who was once Ava’s lover), and works hard and long to mend relations with her ailing mother, played nicely by Geena Davis. OK, so far so somewhat good, but, like pretty much every action thriller, it seems that very few, if any, other soldiers or mercenaries can shoot as good as our likeable but troubled protagonist. Or fight as good as Ava. Or take body blows like Ava, etc.

But, the real problem with the first half of the film is that it’s somewhat uninteresting because A. I could give a shit about her family woes and B. what’s wrong with knocking off a corrupt IMF economist? It’s when the movie gets personal, Ava moving to avenge Duke’s murder, that I started to enjoy the pretty redhead’s acumen and ability to focus.

“Ava” is a C, but that could be a rating that’s the result of my defective preference for straight-up violence. John Wick started puncturing Russian mobsters with knives and bullets because one of them killed his dog (which his wife gifted after her death) and stole his Mustang. I sympathize with both, though much more with the missing muscle car than a puppy. After that, the dead dog and the stolen hot rod were used by the mobsters to express disbelief about Wick’s motivation to kill them moments before he did so. Wick wanted to be left alone, but people kept interfering with his new life as a non-assassin. Ava, well, she’s portrayed as human. She wants to booze. She wants to copulate. She’s troubled by her mother’s, what, callousness and wants to repair their relationship or obtain her affirmation or whatever. Who cares? Not me, until Ava goes vengeful.

If you want to watch a movie about an assassin and the assassin’s detailed backstory, “Ava” is for you. I prefer my killers to be meticulous, stone-cold sociopaths with contempt for humanity, rather than inclination to become part of it.

Del’s take

Much as it pains me I agree with the drift of Mladen’s review. I wasn’t a fan of “Ava.” Ironically, one of the movie’s co-stars appeared as the lead in a superior action flick many years ago. Oh, if “Ava” had only been half as good.

My problem with “Ava” is that it wants to be two movies – the story of Ava the recovering drunk and the story of Ava the badass lady assassin. For an action movie viewpoint character to have flaws is perfectly fine by me, but when half the movie is spent exploring family dynamics and attending 12-step meetings, the distraction of naval-gazing amounts to more than the focus and pacing can bear.

The movie seemed populated with clichéd characters – John Malkovich as the eccentric yet deadly handler, Colin Farrell as the ruthless higher up and Chastain herself as the out-of-control rogue operative who must be exterminated for the sake of the company’s reputation. All this strikes me as VERY familiar. Maybe if they had changed Ava’s name to “Jason.”

Acting was only so-so. Malkovich is good in everything he does but he typically plays one type of character – the kind of guy who, when you walked into your junior year situational ethics class, could be standing at the podium or slouched in the desk next to you. I’ve never understood the draw of Colin Farrell, who strikes me as a tabula rosa kinda guy, and Common was simply awful. I honestly think Shaquille O’Neal could have done a better job reciting those lines.

And then Chastain … what can I say? She was totally wrong for the part. Most of the time she seemed lost and confused, her face an expressionless slate, her eyes wide with … I don’t know, introspection? Valium? Beats me, but the effect was the same. Plus, and this is a biggie, she totally lacked the physicality to play the role. During many of her fight scenes she struck me as slow, uncoordinated and dare I say weak? I wasn’t convinced.

The one redeeming performance came from Geena Davis as Ava’s bitchy, judgmental mom who’s nevertheless happy to have her kid back home, toxic secrets and all. Davis is an actor’s actor and she seemed born into that role, just as she seemed born into all her roles. She was also the star of a much better action flick that some of you old farts may remember, 1996’s “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” Samantha Caine was the romp ’em, stomp ’em action hero that Ava should have been. If only they had handed Geena a gun.

“Ava” is mostly competent in the details but not so much in the view from 20,000 feet. With a better lead actor and a tightly focused plot it could have been a better movie. From me it gets a C-.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical writer. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.


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