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Jessica Chastain in 'Ava.'
Jessica Chastain in 'Ava.'
Photo: Voltage Pictures




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3/5 Stars


Ava, a deadly assassin who has a troubled past, returns home after eight years when a mission goes catastrophically wrong. Things have changed significantly, though, since she fled home to join the military. Her sister is living with Ava's ex-fiancé, her father has died and her mother is in hospital, recovering from a heart attack. While trying to unravel the mess of her past, she has to fight for her future against some very deadly enemies who have been dispatched to murder her.


Ava is the first film I've seen on the big screen in something like five months. It's impossible to review the film without acknowledging that, regardless of its merits, I saw it in a cinema setting after mostly watching films on my laptop for the last six months - and just the experience of seeing it in such a setting (albeit at a quiet preview cinema, rather than with a crowd at a commercial IMAX) is almost enough to guarantee a good review. Almost.

At just about any other time, Ava would be easy enough to write off as a fairly average hitman (hitwoman) thriller; one to fill the gaps between more significant summer blockbusters or more critically acclaimed awards season fair. Admittedly, it's far more slickly put together than your average direct-to-video thriller, and it has a fairly astonishingly A-list cast. But there's really very little to be excited by.

In mad Covid-19 times, though, it was something of a treat to see a solidly cinematic film the way it's supposed to be seen. Sure, I had all but forgotten about it within an hour of leaving the press screening – in contrast to the pair of "prestige" TV shows I watched later that night on my laptop, ironically – but it was good to be back with a perfectly okay film that, at the very least, made decent use of a larger screen and didn't do anything to embarrass itself along the way.

Is there much to the film, beyond its circumstantial good luck? Well, that's a bit more complicated. "Not much" is the short answer.

The long answer is that despite being unapologetically generic, Ava is also somehow a bit of an oddity. The sparkly, A-grade cast (including John Malkovich, Geena Davis, Jess Weixler, Colin Farrell, Joan Chen and, as our eponymous anti-hero, Jessica Chastain) are all clearly punching below their weight but not one of them phones in their performance. Well, okay, maybe Common, but even he is more bland than anything else – which isn't much of a departure from most of his roles, to be fair, – his pseudonym has proven to be both accurate and prophetic in terms of his acting. Clearly, there was something about either the creative team behind the film or the script itself that not only caught the attention of this level of on-camera talent but elicited committed performances too.

Admittedly, it may all just come down to the utterly genius realisation that Jessica Chastain does look an awful lot like a younger Geena Davis and even has a similar tough-but-tender screen presence. The two of them may have just jumped on the first script that would allow them to play mother and daughter and the rest of the cast jumped on board just to bear witness to this none-more-perfect casting. And considering that the best parts of the film have less to do with the ass-kicking bits than the spectacular verbal interplay between Davis and Chastain, it's not as facetious a possibility as it might first appear.  

And, when you get right down to it, the thing that stands out most about this hitman (woman) thriller is that a very significant part of its 97-minute (including credits) runtime is dedicated to the character - and family drama. It has some well-done action scenes – albeit, as always, a wee bit overedited for my liking – that pack a solidly physical punch and the "lone assassin" plot does pop up intermittently just to remind us that this is ostensibly a genre piece. But writer Matthew Newton and director, Tate Taylor, are clearly more interested in telling a story about a damaged woman coming to terms with who she is than about highly trained bastards trying to kill each other. John Wick this ain't.

Think of it as a much, much less funny (and much, much, much less good) dramatic alternative to Grosse Pointe Blank and you'll have a good idea of its action/drama ratio. Though, with the presence of Colin Farrell as a hitman, it's hard not to think of the similarly, infinitely better In Bruges. And, frankly, if you haven't seen either of those films, do yourself a favour and rush out (in) to fix that unfortunate mistake before bothering with Ava – even if you have to watch them on your laptop.

Unlike masterpieces like In Bruges and Grosse Pointe Blank, however, Ava still feels fairly ordinary with its lack of real personality, and the way it handles its tonal shifts is far less adroitly than either of those films. The heavy focus on drama means that most action junkies will be a bit bored throughout the many slower sections, and the action, though delivered with a pleasing crunchiness, is just a bit too flippant to serve the more serious character drama being explored.

Before forgetting it completely, you'll probably reach the end of its one and a half hours wondering if that was all there was. More than anything else, it's just really quite unsatisfying.


Ava is now showing in cinemas

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