Film Review – Ava
Ava (2020) is the cinematic equivalent of painting by the numbers. It follows the outline of the thriller genre so strictly that you have to wonder if this is some kind of deconstruction or parody. Almost every trope you can think of makes an appearance. Does this include a super assassin who is great at their job but also has family problems and a history of substance abuse? You bet it does! Is there a wise old sage who shows up to give advice and warn our protagonist that they’re “Going too far?” Of course there is! Do we get the mysterious organization that turns our hero into a fugitive? No doubt about it! This plays the same old song with such a lack of inventiveness that it almost feels intentional.
We’ve seen basic cable shows that have worked this material more efficiently. Matthew Newton’s writing and Tate Taylor’s direction feels half-hearted, as though they were simply going through the motions of making a movie. This is a big disappointment given how stellar the cast is. Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Common, Geena Davis, and Colin Farrell make for a top-notch group of performers, and yet they too seem to ramble along trying their best despite not having much to work with.
Ava is a smaller to mid-level budget production, and it shows. The scope is regulated to apartments, hotel rooms, hospitals, and back alley streets with little variance. There are no big set pieces here, instead most of the action is confined to intimate spaces. The largest bit of production takes place in a nightclub and even that is stripped down. Everything about the narrative feels small. It’s marketed as a female driven actioner along the lines of Atomic Blonde (2017) but doesn’t have as slick a style. I’m not the biggest fan of Atomic Blonde, but at the very least it gave Charlize Theron enough room to showcase her ability to kick butt. Jessica Chastain is not afforded that same accommodation. Her action scenes are so overly chopped up that we never get to see her do her thing entirely.
Chastain plays the titular role, an assassin who works for an unnamed black ops agency. Their sole mission is to take down targets responsible for heinous crimes. While Ava is apparently the best at what she does, her history of addiction has made her a liability. Instead of killing her targets in cold blooded fashion, she has softened to the point of compassion. She talks to her marks, attempting to garner empathy before disposing them. This is a major issue with her mentor Duke (Malkovich) as well as Simon (Farrell) a high-ranking member of the agency’s “management.” They believe that Ava’s weakness will put the entire organization at risk, and thus Simon makes the decision for her to be their next mission.
Talk about a toxic work environment! To make matters worse, Ava’s past has also caused a strain in her family life. Her addiction (as well as her profession) forced Ava to abandon her family, leaving her sister Judy (Jess Weixler) as the only sibling to look after their ailing mother (Davis). There’s also the problem with Ava’s former love interest Michael (Common) whom she also left. In her absence, Michael fell into Judy’s arms. When the story begins, we find Ava returning home to Boston and confronting this whole messy situation.
The narrative jumbles the balance between Ava’s work and family. It awkwardly transitions between both, creating a disjointed effect. In one scene, she’s off in a European location using her skills to seduce, isolate, and then kill her enemies. A few moments later and she’s back in Boston seeing her mother or taking her sister’s verbal jabs for being gone for so long. There are long stretches where Ava tries to mend her broken relationship with Michael. The fact that she’s currently being hunted by Simon comes like a second thought, not really playing an important factor until the plot shifts into the third act.
Thinking about it, the basic structure reminds me a lot of James Cameron’s True Lies (1994). The difference between both is that Cameron told his story fully aware that it was preposterous. Arnold Schwarzenegger as a family man moonlighting as a terrorist-fighting secret agent is about as ridiculous as you can get, and yet Cameron’s execution kept things entertaining. The downfall of Ava is that the tone is way too banal, telling its story at a surface level and nothing more. It’s a good thing that we are seeing this type of story told with a female protagonist and headlined by a well-established, critically acclaimed actor. But the film as a whole becomes the very thing that True Lies lampooned.
Chastain is credited as a producer on Ava. My guess is that her involvement comes from a place of passion. Although the intention may be earnest, the final product leaves a lot to be desired. Hopefully Chastain’s future choices will come with more prosperous results, because she (along with the rest of the cast) deserve better than this. This is a movie that has just been released and already feels dated.