At first glance, based on the trailers and marketing, there’s a superficial resemblance between Ava and Atomic Blonde. Both films appear to feature top-tier actresses in a stylish, thrilling tale of a spy/assassin who must deal with being targeted by people within her own organization. But whereas Atomic Blonde actually was as stylish and thrilling as promised and then some, Ava is a sloppy, tedious mess of a film that wastes nearly every member of it’s ridiculously over-qualified ensemble almost as much as it wastes the audience’s time and patience.
The spy/assassin in question is Ava Faulkner (Jessica Chastain), who works for…someone. It’s never really defined, so let’s just call them Hitjobs-R-Us (“You tag ’em, we bag ’em.”). She’s called a “loose cannon” (yes, really) for a habit she has of talking to her targets right before she delivers the killing blow, asking what they did to become her target in the first place. When upper management decides she’s too much of a liability, they try to eliminate her during a visit to Boston which sees Ava dealing with family drama and personal demons. None of it goes well, and none of it is terribly interesting.
There’s nothing saying that the story of a superspy being betrayed by her employers can’t be merged with the story of a recovering alcoholic returning home to work out her issues. But the two narratives are welded together so crudely that if feels like writer Matthew Newton shuffled together the scripts of two entirely separate movies. That isn’t ameliorated by director Tate Taylor, who feels completely out of his depth here. There’s no strong focus or voice to the film, resulting in tonal whiplash and narrative incoherence that prevents any momentum from building. The film’s most ambitious fight is in the first act, and it’s most significant character moment is at the halfway point. Rising action? What’s that?
And about those fight scenes. They make the hyper-edited MCU fights look coherent. One of the greatest things about Atomic Blonde was the fact that the fights indulged in long takes that showed off the impressive stunt work, much of which was done by the lead actor herself. Now, Jessica Chastain may have done a lot of her own fighting, but you’d never know from the sequences here, which look like the editing suite chewed them up and spit them back out. The film’s climactic battle is so chaotic and poorly-choreographed that’s almost impossible to enjoy.
Chastain has the grit and carriage of an action star. If anything, she’s believable in the role, at least in theory. It’s a testament to her presence as an actor that just seeing her on screen makes us want to buy into Ava’s story. It’s the follow-through, though. Chastain’s dispassionate take on Ava could charitably be read as a character who’s so damaged and who’s seen so much that their emotions have been permanently muted. But it can also be seen as an actor who’s capable of so much more just not giving that much of a damn, an argument that’s bolstered by the largely disinterested and lazy performances of most of the cast.
The cast of Ava in general is far better than the material here, and most of them know it all too well. Most of the main cast has either a major acting award and/or multiple nominations to their name, but you’d never guess it from what’s on screen. John Malkovich, as Ava’s handler and surrogate father figure, is simply here for a paycheck. Colin Farrell, as the head of Ava’s organization, relies mostly on his innate charisma to carry his role and almost succeeds. Common, as Ava’s ex-boyfriend, gives a barely-there performance that constantly reminds the audience that while he has an Oscar, it’s for Best Original Song.
There are only two actors who really come off well here, and both of them do so while playing against Chastain. The first is Geena Davis as Chastain’s eccentric mother. Davis more than anyone else in the film seems genuinely invested in her role and brings a legitimately appealing energy to it. Her scenes with Chastain are far and away the best in the film, and the chemistry between the two is very real.
The other supporting character to make an impression comes as a bit of a surprise, given her lack of screen time and relative inconsequence to Ava’s story. Joan Chen plays Toni, a crime boss of some kind that Ava’s ex owes money to. Chen has all of five minutes of screen time if that, but dear gods does she make the most of it. Outfitted in the film’s best costumes, exhibiting an organic and lived-in fierceness in her walk, her scenes with Chastain are tense and combative like nothing else. She makes such a good foil for Ava that it’s criminal that she only has two scenes to show herself off.
But Toni’s subplot is also part of the reason Ava as a film simply doesn’t work. Ava is trying to extricate her ex, who is now engaged to Ava’s sister, out of debt to Toni and whatever operation she has going. It has no connection to her job as a killer-for-hire or to the film’s ostensible main story, and the whole subplot could have been removed entirely without affecting anything. Like so much else here, it’s extraneous and disconnected. It ultimately comes off as a distraction, a tangent that pads out the film’s already compressed runtime.
That main story amounts to little and goes almost nowhere, by the way. Just in case you were curious. The film is so scattershot that it’s hard to get invested in any of the plot threads offered, least of all the main one. The setting and set-up is so poorly-constructed that it’s almost impossible to get a vibe or energy going. Ava’s history is never solidly defined, but it’s still clearer than anything else here. Who does she work for? Who knows. Why is she targeting the people she does? Who cares. The script doesn’t, so why should we?
I mean, I really can’t stress enough how awful this screenplay is. This is rough, mama. There’s probably a reason that most of the cast just doesn’t try with material this terrible. Most characters barely have two dimensions and are mostly defined by a handful of traits or habits, and that’s only if they’re lucky. Malkovich’s character seems to have no personality at all, while Farrell’s character seems to begin and end with his accent. Ava’s fight with alcoholism seems like an arbitrary decision, and while Chastain does the best she can with it, it never feels like a natural part of her character.
About the only saving grace this film has is the fact that with credits, it’s just over 90 minutes long. Even then, it feels overlong and tedious. This is bottom-tier, straight-to-VOD material with an inelegantly slumming cast of major stars. Chastain might have a future in action films ahead of her, and I fully believe she could play a convincing action hero, but girl, this ain’t it. This makes Dark Phoenix look good.
Yes, I said it.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / D+