Tate Taylor’s Ava dug its own grave before release. Its former director Matthew Newton was fired following numerous sexual misconduct complaints and the discovery of his 2007 criminal record in which he pleads guilty to assaulting his then-girlfriend. Voltage Pictures alongside Feckle Films, the studio founded by star Jessica Chastain, should have scrapped the project altogether and began anew. Instead, they made the mistake of moving forward with Newton’s script. Question: was Luc Besson not available? The screenplay cobbles together every assassin thriller cliche of cinema past and then shoehorns some wildly awkward family drama to ground itself. In more capable hands, Ava might have been something, well, killer.
As a standalone concept, Ava provides Chastain another great part to flex her chameleon superpowers. Hollywood actresses in their forties are rarely given physically demanding roles that embolden their sexuality, especially playing assassins undergoing a crisis of conscience. Juggling international accents with proficiency, the lauded thespian fits in perfectly with the world of spies and hired guns.
Sadly, John Wick or La Femme Nikita, this is not. Ava never establishes its title character as having a reputation that precedes her. Anything remotely resembling an intriguing backstory is alluded to via formal exposition. Chastain’s awesome display of close-quarters-combat comes much later, well after the tears and a bizarre request to take personal time off. Apparently, even assassins get vacation days every now and again.
A former teen junkie and alcoholic, Ava Faulker enlisted in the army to get away from her emotionally destructive father. After completing her service, Ava was snatched up by black ops groups that carried out government-sanctioned assassinations. Her handler and mentor, Duke (John Malkovich), becomes the closest representation of paternity in her life.
The pair become so tight that Duke overlooks Ava’s recent blunders: she’s become too attached to her marks, asking them why someone would want them dead before doing the deed herself. In Ava’s mind, there has to be a good reason to justify slaying these suit-and-tie bigwigs beyond their financial clout. Because she can’t wrap her head around the “why” part, Ava returns home to decompress. This means confronting the sister, mom, and ex-boyfriend she abandoned years earlier.
Only in something as tonally messy as Ava can family squabbling supply more entertainment than choreographed fight sequences. Ava’s sister Judy (Jess Weixler) is now engaged to her ex-boyfriend Michael (Common). Worse, her mother Bobbi (Geena Davis) is currently checked into the hospital following a heart arrhythmia. To say the two have a strained mother-daughter relationship is putting it mildly. Bobbi appears to take pleasure in patronizing Ava with snide commentary, ranging from her weight to her unkempt haircut. In truth, it’s a defense mechanism for Bobbi to avoid talking about the guilt she feels defending her late husband during Ava’s worst bouts with addiction.
Just when family dynamics couldn’t get any more convoluted, there’s a ridiculous subplot that rears its head involving an underground gambling ring. Michael is looped into it, and after a couple of hours, he owes $70,000 to the house. In other words, he’s indebted to the syndicate’s leader Toni (Joan Chen), who operates out of a back-alley warehouse in Boston. The entire ordeal is thrown in so Ava can risk revealing her line of work. The way it goes about doing so is extremely offensive, employing racist East Asian “dragon lady” stereotypes to emphasize Toni’s domineering power over Michael.
Thankfully, Colin Farrell makes a late-game appearance to bring some semblance of excitement. As the head figure of the black ops’ management team, he plans to give Ava an early retirement with or without Duke’s blessing. Farrell continues his 2020 hot streak of playing fanciful ruffians with trigger-happy personalities. The most striking cinematographic moment in Ava is an overhead shot of Farrell’s Simon walking away from the edge of a pier after coldly disposing of an adversary. Even when he’s playing scum, Farrell maintains a charming swagger.
Diana Silvers, who plays his protege daughter Camille, exudes none of Farrell’s charm. She’s so mechanical that not even an oil can fix her frosty demeanor. The idea that women have to be devoid of personality to be brutal killers is complete nonsense, especially since there are numerous onscreen male brutes who exhibit plenty of charisma.
Ava held potential as a fascinating character study about a complex woman grappling with alcoholism while leading a double life. Unfortunately, Netwon discards Ava’s disorder as soon as the main confrontation concludes. There was never any intention to dive deeper into her path of self-destruction. Scattershot editing, characterization enhanced by Chastain’s acting rather than what’s on the page, and a desperate attempt to create a franchise before proper vetting makes Ava a reckless venture without its eye on the target.