The Jessica Chastain vehicle “Ava” is not the movie you expect it to be, and that’s the source of its weaknesses as well as its strengths. 

In the abstract, “Ava” looks like it wants to be another female-driven action/spy thriller in the vein of “Atomic Blonde.” Set in glamorous international cities where targets need snuffing out, “Ava” mixes family drama; black comedy; luscious shots of four-star hotel suites, lobbies, and bars; and coldblooded espionage euphemisms that are meant to separate killers from their feelings (assassins tasked with murdering strangers are described as executives closing deals). 

Yes, there is bloody action and plenty of it, though unfortunately it’s been directed by Tate Taylor (“The Help“) in the now-seemingly-mandatory handheld, cut-cut-cut style of post-Bourne action pictures. The only satisfying sequence is a close-quarters fight near the end that goes on and on until it becomes horrific, then exhausting, then funny. “I’m a bit rusty,” one combatant admits, blood streaming from his face. 

But on the other hand—and here’s where “Ava” will lose viewers looking for the usual—the film’s heart belongs to its non-action scenes: a succession of simply staged face-offs between Chastain’s Ava, a recovering alcoholic and former teenaged delinquent, and supporting characters portrayed by the likes of Geena Davis, Common, Joan Chen, Jess WeixlerJohn Malkovich, and other performers skilled enough that they can make words sting like slaps. (Ioan Gruffudd, a handsome actor who’s often cast as the slightly dull heroic lead, even shows up for couple of scenes as a scuzzbag money-mover, and seems to relish being free of the burden of nobility.) 

The movie starts by establishing Ava as a talented but unstable “executive.” She’s beloved by her grizzled mentor Duke (John Malkovich), a self-described father figure who has replaced the bad biological dad who died when Ava was still a drunk. But she’s recently become a problem employee, thanks to her habit of getting her targets right where she wants them, then pressing them to confess a bad thing that they’ve done before she “closes” them. Obviously this is evidence of a latent moral streak that’s bubbling up in Ava after years of being tactically suppressed—and it’s bad for business. Another of Duke’s trainees, Simon (a razor-sharp Colin Farrell, playing a murderous family man with a pornstar mustache and side-walled pompadour), is a rising star who’s being groomed as Duke’s replacement. He warns Duke that Ava has screwed up too often, and is on deck to get “closed” by another “executive.” Duke repeatedly covers for Ava, but it seems like it”s only a matter of time before her bill comes due. Will Duke be able to save her?

From there, “Ava” never completely loses interest in its spy-world plot, but it becomes increasingly apparent that the actors and filmmakers seem more personally invested in scenes where the characters talk to each other, turning over unfinished personal business and picking at each other’s emotional scabs. As I sit here writing this review, I’m having a hard time remembering any of the action scenes, except for that last fight. But I have a photographic recall for all the scenes where Ava—who’s been AWOL from her family’s life due to substance abuse treatment and, well, being an assassin—visits her ill mother Bobbi (Davis) in the hospital and reconnects with her estranged sister Judy (Wexler) and her husband Michael (Common). 

There’s plainly some kind of secret, probably mortifying connection between Ava and Michael (you can tell by the way they look at each other) that’ll be revealed in due time. Even more impressive is Ava’s relationship with her mother. The two can barely open their mouths without hurting each other, and Matthew Newton’s script has a keen ear for little throwaway lines that reveal dysfunction—as when Ava stands on a chair to fix a TV in Bobbi’s hospital room, and instead of “Thank you,” Bobbi says “Guess there was nothing wrong with it.”

The strongest scene in the film is a game of hearts between Ava and her mother, played out at a small table against a window. Davis’ presence in the movie at first seems like a clever bit of meta-minded stunt casting (26 years earlier, she starred in “The Long Kiss Goodnight,” an ahead-of-its-time, “Ava”-like, crash-and-burn action flick about a female assassin named Charley Baltimore; Chastain’s wig in the first scene seems deliberately Charley-esque). But it soon becomes clear that Davis is in the cast because she’s a great actress and movie star. Bobbi dances around catharsis, refusing to give Ava the openness she craves, then unexpectedly reversing herself, the floodgates opening up. Chastain hangs back, letting Davis take the scene; what else can you do when your acting partner is doing some of the best work of her life? The actresses are so real here, and in all of the other Ava-Bobbi scenes, that you momentarily forget that this is the kind of film where people kill each other barehanded.  

There’s also a rich (though underdeveloped) sub-theme having to do with addiction. Many characters in “Ava” are either addicts or in recovery, for everything from alcohol and drugs to gambling. It’s implied that the endorphin rush of extreme risk and sudden violence can amplify or partially replace whatever the assassins might get (or do) elsewhere. Conversations between Duke and Simon make it clear that so-called “black ops” organizations purposefully recruit addicted or addictive people because, having experienced chaos or still being in the middle of it, the recruits crave direction, attention, and approval. Even outwardly “normal” agency employees like Simon, with his big house and loving children, has a nihilistic or destructive streak that needs to be satisfied. And most of the ground-level killers like Ava and Joan Chen’s Toni are fringe-dwellers, existing in the margins of respectable society or beneath their radar (far beneath, in Toni’s case; she manages a secret nightclub and sex club with a hidden entrance disguised as a portable toilet). 

“Ava” was marketed, half-assedly and without press screenings, as a hard-edged thriller with tons of gunplay and hand-to-hand combat, reminiscent of the intermittently excellent action pictures that Charlize Theron began to star in after turning 40. Whatever her motivation for saying yes to “Ava,” Chastain (who also coproduced) deserves credit for backing a project that does its own thing, seemingly without regard for what the audience wants, capped with an ending that will prompt “What the hell was that?” reactions. If the action and espionage elements were executed at the same level as the dramatic and comedic exchanges and the observations about the types of people drawn to this life, “Ava” might’ve been a cult classic. 

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