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“AVA” is a video on demand title that just came out of nowhere, that I personally had no idea it even existed. Starring a cast of Hollywood A-listers like Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell and Geena Davis. It’s astonishing to see that this video on demand release is a major production with a studio director, a famous cast and a well known Cinematographer. Jessica Chastain calls upon her director from “The Help”, Tate Taylor who delivers his first action film. Let’s just say there is not much of a distinct style coming from behind the camera. Working from a script that feels like it were written for a network television show that would have lasted one or two seasons at best. The script was penned by controversial figure Matthew Newton who was known to have a very troubling life with headlining incidents for years. Newton later dropped out of the film leaving star and producer Jessica Chastain in overseeing and directly involved with uncredited script rewrites. “AVA” tries to be the next “Atomic Blonde” and the slick bruisers of Luc Besson’s Europa Corp films such as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional”. It tries to strive in delivering a stunt show with plenty of character layering and personal struggles to help give the brawling hand to hand fight scenes some substance. “AVA” has potential and with a stronger script and a more seasoned direction, it would have succeeded as Jessica Chastain’s first franchise that she could call all her own. With most of us still stuck at home and having so much content out there on streaming that despite it’s formulaic structure you can certainly do worse than “AVA”.
Jessica Chastain has had a up and down career at best, while I like most of her movies especially in standouts like: “Zero Dark Thirty”, “The Help”, “A Most Violent Year”, “The Zookeepers Wife” and “Molly’s Game”. A decade ago, she had rocketed to stardom seemingly overnight, she made a few disappointing film choices that put a snag in her career like the atrocity that was “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” but Chastain keeps trucking on and trying her hand at something new.
In her newest film “AVA”, Chastain tries to become the new Charlize Theron as a trained female assassin. She re-teams with her director from “The Help” Tate Taylor in his first action film. Well let’s just say there is not a lot of personality or a distinct style coming from behind the camera. “AVA” is a video on demand title that just came out of nowhere, that I personally had no idea it even existed until I saw it in the new releases section on Vudu.
What initially caught my eye was the cast of Hollywood A-listers like as mentioned Jessica Chastain but also John Malkovich, Colin Farrell and Geena Davis. The only surprise is that it doesn’t have current VOD stars Bruce Willis, John Travolta or Nicolas Cage in it. I clicked on the watch trailer button and what I saw in the trailer was promising including the highlighted fight scenes. So I took that leap and purchased it.
Watching it is astonishing that this is a major production with a studio director, a famous cast and a well known Cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt who previously shot action classics like the first two “Lethal Weapon” pictures and has worked with directors Alan J. Pakula and Mike Nichols. Working from a script that feels like it were written for a network television show that would have lasted one or two seasons at best. The script was penned by controversial figure Matthew Newton who had a very troubling life with headlining incidents in 2006, 2009 through 2012 and again in 2019.
His career was interrupted by treatment in a psychiatric unit for bipolar disorder after several serious incidents of domestic violence and assault. In August 2018, Jessica Chastain who serves as a co-producer on the film was criticised for choosing to work with Newton as a screenwriter on “AVA”. Critics noted that appointing Newton for the role contrasted with Chastain’s participation in the Time’s Up campaign. Newton had later stepped down from the project that likely put Chastain in overseeing or directly involved with uncredited script rewrites.
Which is one of the reasons why “AVA”, finds itself in the pile of VOD (video on demand) titles. “AVA” has yet to be seen in how well it has performed since it’s release on September 25th. Seeing as how the ongoing pandemic has helped VOD films to dominate the streaming services it should do fairly well.
As the film opens we meet Ava (Chastain) on a job in France, pretending to be a hired driver so she can dispatch a corrupt financier played by Ioan Gruffudd (“Fantastic Four”). Right off the bat we are meant to know she isn’t your average hired killer. She wears bold lipstick, quotes Croesus (who reigned as the king of Lydia for 14 years) and she likes to quiz her prey about their wrong-doings before she executes them.
A violation of protocol gets her in trouble with her handler Duke (played by John Malkovich), but it becomes a nearly botched job in Saudi Arabia that makes her a target for her shadowy organization, run by one of Duke’s protegés, Simon (played by Colin Farrell).
So yes, it’s that cliched hired killer becomes the prey story. Screenwriter Matthew Newton ultimately skims the surface of that plot to make room for Ava’s struggles with her personal addictions like drugs and alcoholism. She even has her family issues with her mom Bobbi (Geena Davis) and in one of the most awkward living arrangements ever, Ava’s sister Judy (Jess Weixler, “Chained for Life”) is now living with Ava’s ex Michael (played by actor and rapper Common).
“Ava” was marketed poorly (hence why I probably never heard anything about this movie) and not surprisingly it came without press screenings. “AVA” tries to be the next “Atomic Blonde” and “The Rhythm Section” or the slick bruisers of Luc Besson’s Europa Corp films such as “La Femme Nikita” and “The Professional”. Tate Taylor’s “AVA” strives to deliver a stunt show with plenty of character layering and personal struggles to help give the brawling hand-to-hand fight scenes some substance.
Chastain can have a future in action films and frankly I’m surprised she hasn’t already steered herself more towards that direction. Chastain is a good fit for this style of aggression and I fully believe she could play a convincing action hero in being the next Charlize Theron. While the film has potential, she just needs a better vehicle to display her killer skills.
Chastain’s character requires a lot of heavy lifting and to that degree I can see why the character appealed to her. Ava is tough as hell, but emotionally vulnerable. She’s more than just a mindless killing machine and all of her complexities and the world they are trying to build would have been better realized as a television series. Chastain balances the dramatic with it’s physical fight sequences that results in several taut and violent clashes with large men including a brutal one on one with Colin Farrell.
Director Tate Taylor tries to keep things exciting when it comes time for Ava to clear rooms, aiming to best or at least try be on par with similar Luc Besson endeavors with his own version of his choreographed stunts but some of his sequences feels out of his depth. The two hand-to-hand action scenes between Colin Farrell and John Malkovich and the final confrontation between Chastain and Farrell are both pleasures to watch. To their credit, even if this was just a paycheck gig for Malkovich and Farrell, they keep it professional and make an effort in their characters.
“AVA” has potential and with a stronger script and a more seasoned direction, it would have succeeded as Jessica Chastain’s first franchise that she could call all her own. “AVA” has all the parts to be an action thriller, a dysfunctional family drama and character study. It’s no “Atomic Blonde” or “The Rhythm Section”, but Tate Taylor’s first real foray into this kind of action filmmaking delivers a movie that is essentially functional but without any sense of personal attitude or style. With most of us still stuck at home, no movie theaters open and few notable Blu Ray releases in stores. There is so much content out there on streaming that you can certainly do worse than “AVA”.
GRADE: ★★1/2☆☆☆ (2.5 out of 5)