A film review by Craig J. Koban October 14, 2020

AVA jj
½   

2020, R, 96 mins.

Jessica Chastain as Ava  /  John Malkovich as Duke  /  Colin Farrell as Simon  /  Common as Michael  /  Geena Davis as Bobbi  /  Ioan Gruffudd as Peter  /  Joan Chen as Toni

Directed by Tate Taylor  /  Written by Matthew Newton

The superb and finely in-tune ensemble cast in the new spy thriller AVA deserved much better than the prosaic, by-the-book scripting that was clearly given to them.  

Quarterbacked by the always assured Jessica Chastain (who also serves as producer here) and also helmed by her THE HELP director in Tate Taylor, the film simultaneously tries to subvert genre expectations while playing into the most overused and tired conventions of it, which leaves the final product feeling misshapen and half baked at best.  I could watch the Oscar winning Chastain in just about anything, and she most certainly gives it her all in arguably the most physical performance of her career, but AVA is simply too bland to be a memorable spy outing, and typically seems like it was made up of the finer parts of infinitely better espionage flicks. 

The movie introduces us to the titular heroine (Chastain), who works a dangerous life of an "executive" that's employed with the shadowy, top secret government organization known as "The Management."  Ava was a troubled woman that battled addiction issues before being recruited, but her father figure mentor in the wise Duke (John Malkovich) thinks that she's the best assassin he's ever trained, even though his former protégée and now Management chief in Simon (Colin Farrell) isn't too keen on the newfound manner that Ava displays in getting too personal with her targets before eliminating them.  Ava is a ruthlessly skilled and efficient killer, to be sure, but lately she's been obsessed with getting her prey to confess to their wrongdoing just prior to execution, which Simon considers a rather large no-no.  This is highlighted in a rather effective and chilling opening sequence involving Ava confronting one of her targets, a lecherous financial crook (Ioan Gruffudd), outside of a French airport and in the middle of nowhere.  She "closes" him and instructed, but Simon thinks it's time for her to be closed herself by another executive.  Duke and Ava, rather predictably, has other plans. 

Maybe Ava can't help herself.  For some reason, she's driven by insatiable curiosity as to what criminal acts her targets committed, and she does so repeatedly, even after Duke has warned her that this behavior cannot be tolerated in the field.  Management has explicit rules that forbids their executives from intimately engaging with those primed for the kill.  Perhaps all of this has something psychologically to do with Ava's deeply troubled past with alcoholism and her estranged relationships with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and her sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), who's now an item with Ava's ex in Michael (Common).  While trying to navigate the thornier aspects of her personal life, Ava nevertheless commits herself to more clandestine hit jobs, but it becomes clear that not even Duke will have the pull to stop Simon's mission to terminate her employment...permanently.   

 

 

Of the things that I liked in AVA, one would definitely have to be the core dynamic between Duke and Ava, with the former always serving as a surrogate father figure for her, but her trust in him as a protective entity in her life and work becomes strained as the narrative unfolds and Simon's presence emerges as a major threat.  Beyond that, AVA also tries to hone in more on the drama than globetrotting spectacle and action as far as this genre goes, which is modestly refreshing.  It's compelling to see Ava's past unraveling throughout the film as a young woman that had had her large share of troubles with sobriety, which obviously severely tainted her ties with her mother and sibling.  AVA has some ambition as far as its themes go (and perhaps more than most dime-a-dozen spy thrillers) in the way it chronicles multiple characters in various stages that are battling addiction (even Ava's former lover in Michael is a former degenerate gambler that has difficulty leaving that behind).  The meta casting of Geena Davis was a nifty creative move too, as the star once appeared in her own spy thriller in 1996's THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT, which also featured a lethal, kick ass female assassin.  Watching the much older screen veteran in Davis share scenes with Chastain in AVA is a real treat, and the two play authentically off of one another as mother and daughter. 

Despite all of this, I just couldn't shake the notion that AVA, as a whole, just doesn't work with the efficiency, confidence, and innovation that it clearly wants to.  When one puts Mathew Newton's script under the microscope and under modest scrutiny, it's abundantly clear than AVA lacks cohesion and a sense of purpose.  Perhaps this has something to with the film having far too many characters, too many subplots, and too much history/world building involving these multiple personas for such a short film.  For some of the character dynamics that work (like the aforementioned tandem of Duke and Ava or even Ava and her mother), there are others that don't.  The story thread involving Michael and his gambling woes feels like it really has no business being in this film, and Common (a very adept actor when given good material) is not particularity convincing in this part.  Added on to this is the soap opera-inspired melodramatic love triangle that exists between him, Ava, and her sister, which is about as distractingly unnecessary as it sounds.   

I guess that what we're left with is Chastain's very capable presence in the film and the action beats, and the actress most assuredly does wonders with the iffy and spotty material given to her here.  I've always admired her headstrong commitment to tackle a rich variety of roles and films, and her resume is a testament to that.  She's one of the few rock steady anchors in AVA that momentarily helps take our attention away from the creative mistakes that litter the production.  Then there's the action, and some of the beats have a propulsive energy (I was especially thrilled seeing the near elderly Malkovich getting down and dirty in one key moment), but Taylor is not an action filmmaker at all.  Of course, this is his first action film, to be sure, but he seems to make the same rookie mistake that so many other greenhorn action directors do in terms of using a lot of spastic editing, headache inducing hand held camera moves, and a lack of  basic spatial geography in orchestrating these moments.  Watching AVA made me think that Taylor was trying to emulate the hard-hitting and gritty realism of a JASON BOURNE film with the stylish and bombastic intrigue of an ATOMIC BLONDE, but his work here has no identity or unique flavor of its own.   

In the end, that's the fundamental problem with AVA: It aims for the same sort of visceral thrills of the films it's trying to emulate, but instead just comes off as a copy of a copy of those far better genre efforts.  Chastain doesn't have to prove her A-list movie star cred at all, and AVA presents her as a more than capable female action star on par with, say, a Charlize Theron.  Plus, I shouldn't have to remind anyone that the movie world definitely needs more empowered female driven action thrillers in a genre world that's been a never-ending sausage factory for what seems like forever.  Unfortunately, the performance good will of Chastain and her fellow and extremely capable co-stars is kind of betrayed by the kitchen sink screenwriting and overall uninspired technical execution.  AVA wants to compete right up there with the big boys of the spy thriller genre, but I can't see anyone remembering it days after screening it.  There's a deep-seated lack of genuine intrigue throughout the film, and if one (no pun intended) eliminated Chastain from the equation then there's no real reason to invest your time with this cheaply disposable VOD time waster. 

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