A couple years ago, I worked on a game show called Mental Samurai. The basic premise of the show was to challenge the mental acuity of our contestants by asking them to solve 12 puzzles or trivia questions in the span of five minutes to win a decent chunk of money. The crux of the show was having the players sit in an egg-shaped pod attached to a mechanical arm that was programmed to swing and swivel all over the stage before depositing the player at one of four categorical stations for their next question. For the sake of the presentation, the arm was operated – and the questions asked – by an artificial intelligence named AVA. In essence, AVA controlled your fate, but it was really just a standardized algorithm programed by electricians and producers. That’s not a knock on the show; I actually was quite proud of what we accomplished, mostly because AVA was an element of pure fun. But the spectacle you see is often nowhere near as exciting as the process that made it happen. That’s really what I’m getting at here. AVA took you for a ride, but it was all an illusion and if you remained calm, it didn’t affect you at all.
If you watched Jessica Chastain’s new action film, Ava, you probably had the same feeling. All the ingredients are there for an exciting display of thrills and kills, but really, it’s just a pre-programmed formula, a complete paint-by-numbers display that can still be entertaining, but you could be more than forgiven for feeling empty when it’s all said and done.
And I’m being serious when I say all the needed elements are there. There’s a very strong cast giving decent performances. The editing and fight choreography are fairly strong as well, avoiding one of the lazier traps of action films, in that during the set pieces you can’t keep track of who’s fighting whom or how the fight’s going due to dozens of quick cuts and perspective changes (looking at you, MCU). Chastain and Colin Farrell are even welcome additions to the “let’s turn middle aged actors into action stars” club.
But this is still a bad movie, because nothing new is added to the proceedings. The story is a rote tale of badasses fighting other badasses with some cheap attempts at pathos that never land, and a full checklist of genre tropes that just feels like it came straight from a focus group meeting. It’s bad, but not offensively so. It’s just sort of there, taking up space that we all know could be filled by a better movie (or a much worse one).
The plot, such as it is, features Chastain as Ava Faulkner, an assassin/recovering alcoholic who has an unfortunate habit of trying to understand the sinful actions of her targets. The film opens with Ava taking out an international banker named Peter Hamilton (mislabled as Peter Hawthorne during a “news segment” later on), played by Ioan Gruffudd, aka Reed Richards in the first two Fantastic Four movies. When Ava reveals herself and assures Hamilton that he’s going to die, she asks him what he might have done for someone to put out a hit on him. This penchant for giving her victims a chance at a deathbed confession annoys the higher-ups at Ava’s nameless “organization,” including her handler, Duke (John Malkovich), who tries to protect her, and Duke’s boss Simon (Farrell), who wants her taken out as a loose cannon.
After her latest sin, Ava’s next assignment goes awry and a bloodbath ensues. She decides to take some time off to be with her family in Boston, visiting her musician sister Judy (Jess Weixler of Teeth), her mother Bobbi (Geena Davis), who’s coincidentally recovering from a heart attack, and Judy’s fiancé Michael (Common), who also happens to be Ava’s ex-fiancé. While being stalked by other hitmen (including Simon’s daughter Camille, played by Diana Silvers) and trying to mend fences with her family, she also grapples with her alcohol addiction and tries to bail Michael out from his underground gambling debts while fighting against lingering romantic feelings for him.
I mean, how many issues can you cram into one character to try to make her relatable? It’s bad enough that Ava’s entire life story (brilliant student, scholarship, booted from college for a DUI car wreck, joining military, becoming assassin) is told through newspaper clippings montage during the opening credits, but then the rest of the film tries to force so many personal problems for her into the story that it just becomes a jumbled mess of cliché. The filmmakers basically threw every possible character obstacle at Jessica Chastain’s headshot to see what would stick, and unfortunately everything was coated in superglue beforehand, so it all stuck.
The problem here is that it’s very difficult to wring pathos out of contract killing. By the very nature of the job, the assassin either has to be completely dispassionate about what they do, or get some manic glee out of being a professional murderer. Pity and other somber emotions have no place in the equation. This is why a film series like John Wick is so uniquely successful. They found a way to make a remorseless super-killer lovable with the simple act of introducing a dog. The tiniest, most adorable of creatures briefly humanizes the ex-hitman, and its fate leads to an ultraviolent – and righteous – revenge story where we immediately and unconditionally root for the protagonist, with the subsequent sequels being solely concerned with the fallout and consequences of that initial rampage. It’s so elegant in its simplicity.
With Ava, it’s all over the map. Am I supposed to care about her because of her broken relationships? Her alcoholism? Her mother tolerating an abusive husband? Her thirst for Common’s cock? What am I supposed to go on here, and more importantly, how does this have anything to do with trying to humanize her own victims before she kills them? She makes it clear that Hamilton (and others) have no chance to survive. There’s no capacity for mercy here, so why bother? Hell, if I were one of her victims, what point would there be in telling her anything if there’s no chance for me to spared? Why give her that satisfaction? Because the film can’t answer these questions, they appear to have just thrown up their hands, decided on “all of the above,” and then proceeded to assemble a plot around her that reads like the instructions to your new IKEA furniture. Every decision, fight, betrayal, and turn of the screw (figuratively) from that point on feels completely tacked on, and all we can do is wait until we get the final product, too sweaty and exhausted to care.
And it really is a shame, because the cast is on point. Chastain does well enough with the material she’s given, selling the drama with the best of them. Malkovich and Farrell are clearly having a blast with their roles, probably because they know how silly everything is. I saw a pull quote from a review that called them “A-list actors who know they’re in a B-movie,” and that sums it up admirably. And again, the actual fight choreography is very well executed, including a bit of self-awareness when the cast comments on how much the wanton destruction is actually wearing on their bodies.
There are things to enjoy here. The pieces are there. But there are also too many of them, and they’re applied to the main character in such a scattershot way that everything left over has to be reduced to its most utilitarian purpose. A better script and story could have turned this into a really strong action movie led by a stellar cast. Instead, it lands with a thud because it’s so formulaic and mass-produced. Earlier this year, Extraction ended up being a terrible movie that got elevated due to one insanely awesome sequence. This film is probably better overall, but I actually rate it slightly below Extraction, because it isn’t even ambitious or passionate enough to attempt that one great moment. The film wants to look like a roller coaster ride, but like its TV game show equivalent, Ava just feels like a computer is shuttling us along. Though, at least with Mental Samurai‘s AVA, when she jerked you around it was part of the fun.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who do you think should be the next 40+ A-list action star? Is there any more boring celebrity interaction than playing Hearts with Geena Davis? Let me know!