With a promising premise and a star-studded cast, it’s a wonder “Ava” is so aggressively mediocre.
The Tate Taylor-directed (“The Help,” “Ma”) film was released Sept. 25 to video on demand after an underwhelming box office release in July. The film follows Ava Faulkner (Jessica Chastain), a recovering alcoholic and ex-military-operative-turned-assassin, as she tries to take care of her loved ones while completing high-stake missions.
Ava’s life story is conveyed not through dialogue, but through a flickery opening-credits montage of home videos, news clips and missing persons reports. It’s straight out of a procedural crime drama like “CSI,” and feels as though the writers didn’t want to waste screen time on exposition so they could fit in more fight scenes.
This sets a precedent for the film. Ideas which could be given more consideration and expansion are instead merely glossed over.
When Ava breaks protocol by repeatedly talking to her targets before “closing” them, she’s deemed a liability and targeted by Simon (Colin Farrel), an ambitious higher-up at the agency she works for. Her hard-boiled but fatherly mentor Duke (John Malkovich) tries his best to protect her, but there’s only so much you can do when world-class assassins are on your tail.
Of all the relationships portrayed onscreen, Ava and Duke’s banter-filled, father-daughter rapport is by far the most compelling. It’s revealed that Ava had a difficult relationship with her own now-deceased father and Duke has since stepped into that role, affectionately calling her “kiddo” and going out of his way to give her time off after a job leaves her shaken. Their dynamic feels sincere and genuine in a way Ava’s other relationships don’t.
The filmmakers would have done well to lean more into Ava and Duke’s dynamic, particularly in contrast with the hurt and betrayal she experienced at the hands of her own father. This would have heightened the emotional stakes and given the audience more of a reason to care about both characters’ wellbeing.
Other characters exist in Ava’s orbit, but none of them ever quite get past her stratosphere. When she returns to her hometown of Boston to reconnect with her family after cutting contact eight years prior, she discovers her mother (Geena Davis) has suffered a heart attack, and her sister Judy (Jess Weixler) has gotten engaged to Ava’s own ex-fiancé Michael (Common).
All the pieces of an intriguing story are there, but the assassin-on-the-run and familial conflict narratives don’t fit together like they should. The film includes a plotline about Michael’s struggle with a gambling addiction, but, like his former romance with Ava, it feels tacked-on and is never fully fleshed out.
The film doesn’t delve much into Ava’s connection with her sister either. Of Ava’s familial relationships, the one that gets the most closure is her bond with her sharp-tongued mother, but only insofar as it helps her reconcile with her father’s treachery.
Each cast member plays their role well, but Chastain’s performance carries the film. She delicately balances Ava’s cold and ruthless mercenary exterior with her fundamentally human interior. With her natural charm and impressive stunt-work, Chastain is an incredibly captivating action hero.
Though the fight scenes in this film are brutal and high-velocity, the rest of the pacing is moderate at best and sluggish at worst. The film plods dutifully along, progressing unhurriedly toward its climax.
Perhaps climax is a strong word. The film just sort of winds down, the final chase more of a stroll. The audience should be rooting for Ava’s victory, but without any real emotional resonance in the resolution, viewers may be left rooting for the film to be over instead.
It’s hard to nail down exactly what went wrong with “Ava.” Whether it was the writing, directing or editing, the end result is a movie with great potential but poor execution. The film could certainly have benefitted from more even pacing, a tighter script and more time to let the characters fully develop.
Ultimately, “Ava” is just okay. If you’re really desperate to watch this film but don’t want to waste your money, check out the trailer instead — it’s the essentially entire film cut down to two and a half minutes, spoilers and all.
“Ava,” rated R, is available on streaming services including Apple, Google Play and Amazon Prime Video for $6.99.