In case you didn’t know it, Jessica Chastain is a bonafide movie star. Case in point, take a look at her latest film “Ava”, a mixed bag of a movie made considerably better by Chastain’s terrific lead turn. Star-powered performances can often (but not always) carry a movie and elevate it beyond what it would have been otherwise. Chastain does just that with “Ava”, driving the film with killer charisma and intense commitment.
As you probably guessed, Chastain plays the title character Ava Faulkner, a globetrotting assassin doing jobs for a shadow organization simply known as “management”. Sound familiar? That’s because writer Matthew Newton borrows a lot from the action genre he’s playing in. Newton was also slated to direct the film but bowed out amid assault and domestic violence allegations. Tate Taylor was hired as a replacement, directing Newton’s script but bringing nothing particularly new to the film. Instead he puts the bulk of the load onto his able cast, specifically Chastain.
Ava is one of the organization’s best assassins but she comes with some baggage. She’s a recovering alcoholic slowly losing her grip on sobriety. She’s also having bouts with her conscience. In hopes of justifying her actions, Ava begins questioning her “subjects” about their sins before offing them. That’s a big no-no in her line of work and “management” starts to worry. Thankfully she has Duke (John Malkovich), her handler for the organization and proverbial father figure, a welcomed replacement for the slug of a dad she had growing up. Duke works to convince his boss Simon (Colin Farrell) that Ava is stable and still an asset. MmmHmm.
That’s all one side of the story. We get the flipside once Ava returns home to Boston. Surprisingly, the movie spends a ton of its running time on this part of Ava’s story. In one sense the filmmakers should be applauded for bringing depth to its lead character. They do so by digging into her dysfunctional family history with her sharp-tongued mother (Geena Davis) and her embittered sister Judy (Jess Weixler). Toss in the presence of Ava’s ex-fiancée Michael (a painfully wooden Common) who’s now engaged to Judy. Talk about throwing gas on an already raging family fire.
Chastain shines in both sides of Ava’s story. She’s a tough, physical force and makes for a thoroughly believable action movie lead. And she brings strong and relatable emotion to the family drama half of “Ava”. The problem is the two sides of the story are at odds with each other. You watch and wait for their inevitable convergence but oddly they never come together (at least not in a truly meaningful way). Instead they both kinda play out, connecting superficially rather than substantively.
Strangely both of the movie’s two halves work good on their own but they don’t gel together in the way they need to. Sadly it’s the action stuff that gets shortchanged the most. Chastain brings intensity and physicality to the shoot-outs and fight scenes while Bear McCreary’s pulsing score amps up the energy. But ultimately it all needs more time and setup.
While “Ava” may not come together to form the most cohesive movie, it has enough meat on its bones to make for an entertaining escape. It’s also sure to catch a lot of people off guard, especially those expecting a more straightforward action flick. Instead “Ava” is just as much a tough dysfunctional family drama. If only the two parts melded together to make a better whole. So we’re left with a movie that teases franchise ambitions but will probably end up as a one-and-done. It’s a shame because I wouldn’t mind following Chastain’s Ava on the next leg of her journey. “Ava” is now available on VOD.
VERDICT – 3 STARS