Oscar-nominated actress Jessica Chastain emanates an instant presence onscreen, utilizing her innate ability to convey strong performances in Zero Dark Thiry and Molly’s Game. Her enduring strength always seemed tailor-made for the action genre, making her latest staring endeavor Ava an intriguing proposition. Unfortunately, Ava mainly operates as a bewildering misfire despite bolstering an acclaimed cast and worthwhile aspirations.
In Ava, Jessica Chastain stars as the titular protagonist, a lethal assassin who returns home after a mission goes sideways. To reconnect with her family (Geena Davis plays her mother while Jess Weixler plays her sister), Ava looks to atone for her eight-year absence by righting the wrongs of her alcoholic past. While she tries to make peace, her contractor Duke (John Malkovich) is being pushed by his protege Simon (Colin Farrell) to take her out of the picture, leaving Ava in a desperate fight for survival.
From the opening frames, Ava attempts to elevate its familiar action trappings through its character-driven approach. Infusing the typical formula with a sense of weight sounds great on paper, yet Matthew Newton’s screenplay strains itself with futile dramatic aspiration. The character dynamics never feel lived-in, with the script furiously throwing expository dialogue at the screen to compensate for their lackluster development.
We hear so much about Ava’s rocky history regarding her family and past alcoholism, but the audience is never able to connect to these lingering demons. Chastain does her best to imbue gravitas into the character’s struggles, though her talents can never shake the overwhelming sense of banality. Like a lot of poorly drawn action heroes, she comes off as a cold enigma despite this film’s frequent attempts to humanize her. The side characters, including Ava’s family, her former boyfriend who is now dating her sister (Common is given nothing to do), and her spy associates, are equally underserved by a script that draws concepts without coloring them fully.
If the drama doesn’t work, what about the action? Somehow these frames are even more inept. Tate Taylor has constructed some strong films (Get on Up is overlooked), yet his transition into genre filmmaking continues to suffer from blandly-coated sterility. Every attempt to punch up the craftsmanship with slick style falls woefully flat, utilizing cliche techniques that create a noticeably cheap aroma (seriously, this felt like a TV pilot airing on CBS). The action scenes are constructed without much care, hacking choppy edits that morph hand-to-hand fights into incoherent eyesores. This pervasive sloppiness is damaged further by a self-serious tonality, which only works to further damages the apparent hiccups onscreen (the only fun comes from a so-bad-its-good fistfight between Colin Farrell and John Malkovich, which features an apparent use of stunt doubles).
Jessica Chastain stands strong as an action star, but Ava‘s misguided execution lies beneath her abilities.