Ava is a movie you have seen before. The story of an incredibly gifted assassin that ends up betrayed by their organization is a tale as old as time. What should make this version of the story interesting is its main character.
Ava Faulkner (Jessica Chastain) has your typical ultra assassin backstory: fantastic student in her youth, joined the military, excelled at her service, was recruited to a company of mercenaries by her old commanding officer (John Malkovich). All this is textbook fare, but the wrinkle comes as we learn some interesting faults about Ava herself. She is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and has an extremely tense relationship with her mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and sister, Jude (Jess Weixler). Not to mention a complicated romantic past with her ex-fiancé and Jude’s boyfriend, Michael (Common).
It is these elements that could make Ava a unique entry in this well-worn subgenre. Unfortunately, the film squanders any potential it has by delivering a story with none of the surprises such interesting character conflict could inject into the narrative. A big part of that has to do with the script itself by controversial figure Matthew Newton. Though Newton eventually left the production of the film and Jessica Chastain is a prominent producer on the project (likely overseeing or directly involved with uncredited rewrites), the finished script feels uninterested in capturing a specific and uncommon perspective for Ava.
Instead, the story plays out exactly as you expect it to. There is nothing here that will catch you off-guard or deliver something new to a premise you have seen countless times. That is so disheartening considering the phenomenal cast Ava has at its disposal. Besides the aforementioned players, you also have Colin Farrell and Joan Chen showing up as antagonistic forces. These are actors that are primed to provide indelible villain performances. Instead, they are both criminally wasted on tired tropes that are masquerading as characters.
Maybe this familiarity wouldn’t be as damning if director Tate Taylor was able to bring some real flair to the filmmaking of Ava. But for his first real foray into this kind of action filmmaking, Taylor delivers a movie that is essentially functional but without any sense of personal attitude or style. This looks like every contemporary network television thriller from the past decade, and the movie sometimes even sinks below that level with some unconvincing digital effects. The editing and choreography of the action are acceptable at best and frustratingly bland at their worst.
The movie only really shows signs of shining when Ava has to deal with the issues between her and her mother. Geena Davis – in what has to be a sly bit of referential casting to the wonderfully underappreciated The Long Kiss Goodnight – is as delightful and committed as always, and it is these few moments where the movie starts to escape its stereotypical mold. Without spoiling anything, the dilemma between this mother and daughter is an interesting one, but it also falls back on a lot of easy and uninspired emotional beats.
Frankly, it is kind of shocking that Ava is a movie credited to primarily male creatives in the key filmmaking positions. For a conflict that should center around the familial relationship between a daughter, her sister, and their mother, there is a serious lack of a woman’s genuine perspective behind the camera. If Chastain was able to add anything at all to these scenes to give them an additional bit of convincing weight, every minuscule ounce of it is there on the screen. You can see it but it just is not enough to ever fully click into place.
Anything that could make Ava special is tossed aside for stale conventions and rote action. By the end of the movie, Ava comes across less like a feature film and more like a weak pilot for a show that never got picked up to series. All the ingredients are there to craft a distinctive new flavor to this kind of a story. The fact that so many talented individuals can’t turn it all into something good is a big bummer.
And if this was a show on television? You can bet it is safe and boring enough to run on a network like CBS for at least five seasons. At the very least, Ava can lay claim to just being boring. In a year with some truly awful and totally pointless movies, that almost gives it an edge.