2023, R, 115 mins.
Jennifer Lopez as Mother / Joseph Fiennes as Adrian / Omari Hardwick as Cruise / Gael García Bernal as Hector / Paul Raci as Jons / Lucy Paez as ZoeDirected by Niki Caro / Written by Andrea Berloff, Peter Craig and Misha Green
Blandness taints Netflix's new action thriller THE MOTHER...on multiple levels.
Just look at its title. It's dull. It doesn't inspire excitement.
Then look at its overall storyline (amazingly, the product of not one, not two, but three writers) that travels down just about every obligatory revenge genre cliché imaginable.
Then consider how it's a somewhat lazy and uninspired hodgepodge of multiple other espionage/assassin franchises (and far better ones, at that) like JASON BOURNE, JAMES BOND, and JOHN WICK), so much to the point where it feels like a pale facsimile.
THE MOTHER is not without talent on board. It's
directed by Niki Caro, who two decades ago made the brilliant WHALE RIDER
and - more recently - was hand-picked to make the wholly unnecessary MULAN
live action remake for Disney. The film also boasts a fully
committed Jennifer Lopez playing a battle-hardened and world-weary action
hero who, to be fair, is refreshingly against the type of her usual romcom
fare. THE MOTHER has the core building blocks of a solid action
thriller, but it does nothing unique with said blocks whatsoever.
They're just all scattered about without anyone really knowing how to put
THE MOTHER has, at the very least, a well-engineered and unexpectedly shocking opening. We're introduced to an unnamed ex-U.S. military operative and FBI informant (let's just refer to her as The Mother, played by Lopez), who became pregnant and went on the run after getting embroiled in the world of two arms dealers, Adrian (Joseph Fiennes) and Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal). On the run, Mother manages to make it to an Indiana-based safe house with her FBI handler, Agent Cruise (Omari Hardwick). Adrian manages to infiltrate this safe house and kills nearly everyone inside, except Mother and Cruise, both of whom become severely wounded in the process. Poor Mother herself is barbarically stabbed in the stomach while pregnant, which forces her to give birth prematurely at a secure hospital. A higher up informs Mother that the baby will be placed in a foster family for her protection, something that Mother vehemently opposes. However, she soon realizes that her baby will never be safe, so she eventually acquiesces to her superior's demands, but on three conditions: (1) The child will live as safe of a life as possible, (2) a photo of the child will be given to her on every birthday, and (3) if trouble comes and threatens the child, she is to be called.
Mother then disappears into obscurity and lives a hermit-styled life in the wilds of Alaska, trying to keep a distance from her offspring and the world at large. Rather predictably, danger lurks in the form of a resurfaced and horrifically scared Adrian, whose forces hope to locate and apprehend the now 12-year-old kid, Zoe (Lucy Paez), which prompts Mother to come out of hiding and make her presence felt. Now, why is Adrian so obsessed with this child? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that a decade ago Mother was romantically involved with both Adrian and Hector, meaning that - whoa! - one of them could actually be Zoe's father. Narrowly escaping capture, Zoe goes on the run with Mother, leading to both of them returning to the latter's Alaskan-based home in hopes of not only dodging Adrian's non-stop pursuit of them, but also to allow Mother the time to prepare her child in all of the ways of defending herself and living off of the grid. Obviously, this already stressful relationship dynamic gets taxed further as the story evolves and hits its preordained climax pitting Mother, child and Adrian coming to a violent confrontation.
THE MOTHER is hardly Jennifer Lopez's first descent into action film territory (she recently dabbled in the mostly dreadful action romcom SHOTGUN WEDDING for Amazon), but here she gets to play a stern, tough, no nonsense, and emotionally cold killing machine in Mother, which represents a nice change of pace from the types of roles that we're accustomed to seeing the actress take. She's a lethal force of nature that just so happens to be an emotionally fragile mother that's steeped in tragic empty nest syndrome when she had her baby taken abruptly from her just after birth. I wouldn't go out of my way to say that THE MOTHER's titular role offers up a compelling acting challenge for Lopez, which mostly requires her to be blank-faced, steely eyed and vengefully determined throughout. Having said that, though, she acclimates to the film well in some of the film's few good dramatic scenes and its plethora of solid action beats. There's a case to be made that Lopez carries most of this film's sometimes dead weight squarely on her own shoulders. In most respects, the star makes THE MOTHER watchable and pulsate with some interest.
This is also a rare revenge thriller with a rough and rugged female lead that's anything but a helpless damsel in distress. Mother is not only well delineated as a brutally efficient killing machine, but also as a woman that will stop at nothing to ensure her daughter lives through any hellish predicament. Maternal protective instincts dominate much of THE MOTHER's character dynamics, which is why her not being given a name is actually a good thing. The Mother is driven purely by motherly instincts...and that's it. She loves Zoe and will secure her freedom, no matter what the cause. It's also kind of compelling how The Mother is never sexualized for the purposes of placating the baser needs of some audience members. Lopez is a limitlessly beautiful woman, so I could definitely see how a lesser director beyond Caro (or perhaps a male director) would have made Mother an eroticized creation, so points need to be given here when it comes to character restraint. Tied to this is the film's remarkably bleak and gruesomely violent opening stages, which, as mentioned, involved a fully pregnant Mother getting viciously assaulted and stabbed in the gut, which helps to establish THE MOTHER as a fairly grisly affair that owns up to its R-rating.
Caro also does a fine job when honing in on the requisite action scenes too, and the film is littered with effectively staged sequences, like one involving Mother ambushing one of Hector's Cuban estates, or one in the climax set in the snow-covered vistas of Alaska and involving multiple chases on snowmobile that culminate in blood-spewing gun fights. There's a good sense of geographic scale to the picture as well, with Caro taking the characters on globetrotting treks through not only Alaska, but also Havana. Still, I would have preferred Caro to dial down on some of her distracting aesthetic choices here, some of which involve obscure camera angles, blurred screen edges, staccato editing, and so forth. Bombarding an action movie with too much style often serves to hide its lack of tangible substance.
And that's precisely what THE MOTHER lacks the most - substance. This spy-action thriller genre has sported so many spectacular examples over the years that it leaves Caro and company in a thorny place of making their film stand proudly apart, which is where it mostly fails. The overall setup of the killer agent turned hermit that reunites with a child she lost and is forced to become a real parental figure for her has echoes of similar story threads in films like LOGAN and THE PROFESSIONAL, especially the latter for how Mother has to train Zoe in the ways of guerrilla warfare. Beyond its survivalist tale, the spy elements in THE MOTHER are woefully undercooked, especially when it comes to the villains themselves and what drives them. Joseph Fiennes is a routinely fine actor, but he's not really credible or scary as his horrible mutilated baddie with a severe axe to grind with Mother. Hector himself fares no better as an antagonist, who appears and disappears in the film without generating much narrative interest. The whole crutch of the story is that one of these men may be Zoe's daughter, and flashbacks are awkwardly peppered throughout the film to hopefully establish some connection with these lost souls, but ultimately it made me ask more dicey questions. When it boils right down to it, Adrian is nothing more than a maniac with a grudge, and not much else. Sometimes, these films are only as good as their villains, and on that level THE MOTHER leaves a lot to be desired.