Jessica Chastain Shoots Her Way Through a Maze of Clichés in ‘Ava’

It has finally happened. Jessica Chastain has entered that rite of passage required of any actor whose career began with the masters: The bad assassin movie. Charlize Theron, Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, they’ve all been there. Chastain’s turn comes in “Ava,” a movie that features a director’s name in the credits, but could have easily been made by some pre-programmed software featuring every essential in the attractive killer-for-hire genre. 

As with any respectable bad assassin movie, you already get the lead’s name in the title. Chastain plays Ava, who we first meet posing as a driver but is really an assassin assigned to killing a guy who does finance. Who’s wrath did he inspire? Neither we nor Ava ever find out. The fact that the oh so secretive agency that sends her out to kill people says nothing of the targets she is assigned to kill begins to irk her. Soon she starts to get a bit chatty with her victims. Ava is also a recovering alcoholic, a fact not lost on everyone around her including handler Duke (John Malkovich), who like any good mentor in the art of murder, asks her to take some time off. But Duke’s other protégé and head honcho in the agency, Simon (Colin Farrell), is not too happy with Ava’s increasing need to talk with the “subjects” she’s supposed to knock off. After a botched killing of a German general in Saudi Arabia, Simon decides it’s time to cancel out Ava. 

“Ava” is one of those action movies that has an insistent feeling of déjà vu. It stems from the fact that we’ve seen this movie before many times with different faces and settings, but the same ingredients. Director Tate Taylor truly has no interest in reinventing the wheel, he’s happy just using everyone else’s instruction manual. Ava as a character is that same old walking idea of slick, trained killer type. She goes out jogging with a hunting knife in her ankle, which she also uses to open packages. She is a master at all things from intense jogging to the roundhouse kick. How she came into this business is unclear. The hazy and stripped screenplay by Matthew Newton suggests Ava bailed out on her family when alcoholism took its toll eight years ago, and somehow returned as a super assassin. Who the agency Duke and Simon run is also left as an unknown. Like many of its forebears, “Ava” never bothers to explain who employs Ava. All we need to know is that it’s a shadowy enterprise and its bosses live in really nice houses. It lacks the dramatic clarity of the best movie in this genre, Luc Besson’s “La Femme Nikita,” about a junkie turned killer by French intelligence as a way to pay for her criminal record. Of course, even Besson has been reduced to copying his own formula in recent blondes aiming guns romps like “Lucy” and “Anna.” See the pattern here in the naming of these things?

Taylor, whose biggest directorial hit remains “The Help,” could have at least tried to have fun with this material. Films like “John Wick” know they are absurd, so they go for aesthetic pleasure and exhilarating choreography. “Ava” has rather stale action scenes repeating the same old moves. Expect Chastain to get flipped over onto a coffee table, and Colin Farrell will dig a knife into someone’s back. Even the music feels oddly subdued. Taylor is also convinced he’s making a domestic drama with a shallow side story involving Ava’s sister Judy (Jess Weixler), who is now with Ava’s ex, Michael (Common, playing up his soap opera chops). Judy has no purpose other than to put Ava through guilt trips for having left to grapple with addiction years ago, while Michael has a gambling addiction that serves no purpose other than to show Ava can be a helpful angel by offering to pay a big debt. Geena Davis gives the best performance as Bobbi, Ava and Judy’s mother, who has health issues, talks about her dead husband and drinks in front of her recovering alcoholic daughter. Chastain, who has worked with everyone from Terrence Malick to Aaron Sorkin, who was once Salome for Al Pacino, doesn’t quite fit in the role of a simplistic action star. To be fair, she’s not allowed to do much except throw a few punches, walk with a fierce stare and aim a gun. Her best moments involve Ava breaking down from guilt or the allure of hotel room alcohol. 

The filmmakers had no way of knowing the ongoing pandemic would render “Ava” a partial streaming release. But whether streaming or in theaters, we as an audience at least deserve a good reason to follow yet another female assassin with a tortured soul around. Ava’s major crime which condemns her to be a target is that she gets too chatty. At least John Wick went on a rampage to avenge his dog. If Taylor wanted to be so devoted to clichés, he could have at least conjured a good old fashioned villain seeking to blow up the world. “Ava” packs faces we know into a blender of clichés. Generally movies are meant to be an escape. This one is a tour through plots we’ve been through before.

Ava” releases Sept. 25 on VOD and in select cities.