Ava review – a dumb family melodrama and a dull spy thriller all in one

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: August 25, 2020 (Last updated: February 11, 2024)
Ava review – a dumb family melodrama and a dull spy thriller all in one


Jessica Chastain makes getting drunk seem like a good idea in this bland action-thriller saddled with too much soapy baggage.

And in the beginning, there was Eve. Back in the halcyon days of, like, 2018, this ill-fated espionage thriller was set to be directed by Matthew Newton, the Australian writer and director of Who We Are Now who has a laundry list of criminal accusations and convictions to his name, including ones for domestic abuse. That seems like the kind of thing that’d be off-putting to the film’s producer and star Jessica Chastain, a vocal proponent of the Time’s Up and Me Too movements, but apparently not. Nevertheless, a frenzied backlash against him and Chastain’s hypocrisy caused Newton to step down and be replaced at the last minute by The Help’s Tate Taylor and the title was changed to Ava, presumably under the assumption that a different three-letter palindrome with a V in the middle would pass by completely unnoticed.

Well, no such luck – though it’s close. Ava is currently doing the rounds here in Europe and will have a Stateside run in September, where one assumes that the whole controversy will be dredged up again, which would be unlikely to do a good movie any favours and will likely sink this one, which – and this is putting things mildly – isn’t very good at all.

Were Ava just a generic action thriller it’d be difficult to recommend thanks to its litany of clichés, tortuously dull plot, and stale action which sometimes reaches a “Liam Neeson climbing a fence in Taken 3” level of editing by Zach Staenberg. But it’s also, for reasons entirely unknown to everyone, a kind of ridiculous family melodrama, with mommy and daddy issues, a complicated love triangle, and substance abuse. It’s daft in large part because it’s taking itself embarrassingly seriously.

Chastain, in particular, is giving the role of top-class assassin Ava a really serious treatment, and the fact she’s good despite being saddled with a woeful script – credited, perhaps unsurprisingly, to Newton – is testament to her star power. She does everything she can to provide some emotional contours to a character whose entire backstory, from street-kid scuffles to drug addiction and alcoholism, army recruitment, and black-ops assassinations, is revealed over the opening credits by various newspaper clippings, archive photographs and partially redacted documents. The film finds her now working for Duke (John Malkovich), a father-figure who’d like her to stop getting too chatty with her victims before it attracts the ire of his former protégé Simon (Colin Farrell) and the clandestine agency he’s a representative of. I think you know where this is going.

First, though, to the German Embassy in Riyadh, which hosts a mission-gone-wrong and one of several big action set-pieces that keep threatening to be good but never quite commit to it. Before long, Ava is on the run, and things are very personal – and it’s in getting personal that this film also gets rather perplexing.

For instance, when Ava fled Boston she left behind a largely disinterested mother (Geena Davis), a father who is now dead, and a sister, Jude (Jess Weixler), who is still fuming that Ava missed the funeral. To make matters even more complicated, Jude’s other half, Michael (Common), was in a relationship with Ava before he shacked up with her. He’s the only member of the family who seems interested in keeping anything in it, and the film has absolutely no idea how to unpack all the personal subplots and traumas associated with these knotty relationships. Nowhere is this more evident than in what is supposed to be a climactic confession scene, during which Ava unburdens herself right in the middle of an action sequence that has nothing to do with the family drama whatsoever.

This is Ava in microcosm; two very different films jostling for space in one. The problem is that neither the action thriller nor the family drama is worth the effort. Being cut into chunks and stapled together like some kind of hideous Frankenstein’s genre monster only disservices both, and the resultant hybrid is too ungainly for the talent both in front of and behind the camera to really navigate. Malkovich and Farrell smartly latch onto the film’s B-movie ridiculousness and make the most of their scenes together, which include an unintentionally funny if rather mismatched fight, but Stephen Goldblatt and Bear McCreary, handling the cinematography and soundtrack respectively, just opt for a generically glossy presentation.

The highlight ends up being Joan Chen as a crime boss whose function in the narrative I’m still not sure I could completely explain. Nevertheless, she’s there, and she almost seems to have been transplanted from a much better and more serious film that I might have liked to see. The same can’t be said of this one.

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