By John H. Foote
(**) Streaming on Apple
Jessica Chastain has now cornered the market on portraying beautiful, confident women, highly intelligent, always the smartest person in the room. Interesting that she burst into fame as the sad, unprejudiced woman in The Help (2011), light years from the strong women she would go on to portray.
In Zero Dark Thirty (2012) she was the brilliant CIA operative Maya who found Osama Bin Ladin living in plain site. Her work as the brilliant tough attorney Miss Sloane (2016) deserved an Oscar nomination, as did her performance in Molly’s Game (2018) as the brilliant, tough operator of a poker game. The similarities of her character in all three films have some questioning her range, but not me. I saw Chastain in The Tree of Life (2011) as a nurturing Mother Earth, superb, and if you are watching you can see the evolution of her characters. Similar? Maybe. The same? No chance. Compare her giggling, shapely southern belle in The Help, for which she earned an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress, with any of her tough women. Watch her as the dangerously sexual Salome (2010) in the rarely scene Al Pacino project, or frankly anything she is in and you recognize her to be a major talent. Huge.
As Eva, Chastain is cast as an assassin for an international agency who hire black ops after their time in the military has ended. A recovering alcoholic and drug addict, her life was turned upside down after catching her father cheating and he turned it against her, driving her from the family.
She is a now lethal assassin with one flaw – she likes to talk to her prey about what they did to deserve to die. This drives her superiors crazy, yet her talents outweigh her flaws. Her immediate superior, Duke (John Malkovich) likes Ava, and she sees in him the father she wished she had, not the betraying monster who sent her running.
A return home after the death of her father is hard for her, having been gone eight years. Her sister resents her, her ex-boyfriend is angry, and her mother harbours a terrible secret she will eventually reveal to Ava, setting the assassin free.
But an assassination of a General in the Middle East goes horribly wrong, and Ava is forced to kill many more than just the target and fight her way out. Thinking Duke has set her up, she confronts him, only to see he did nothing of the kind.
But Duke knows who did.
He flies to Canada to meet with Simon (Colin Farrell), a snide family man now Duke’s boss, and who wants Ava dead. A second attempt is made, and Duke pays Simon another visit, as the walls close in on Ava.
The script is highly formulaic, never giving the actors much meat, but damn, do they give it their all, thrashing about the screen, gnashing their teeth, obviously having a great time.
Chastain is terrific as always in what is easily the most physically demanding performance of her career. Wild stunts, incredible martial arts fighting, all executed with absolute confidence. Perhaps this was what attracted the actress to the film, the chance to play an action hero? I mean just about all great actors do eventually, right?
Geena Davis is rather excellent as her mother, who knows far more about what her husband did to Ava than she was willing to admit when he was alive. Her confession to Ava is a startling reminder of what a fine actress Davis is, and how much we have missed her from the screen.
Everyone loves Malkovich, I mean what is not to love? An extraordinary actor, he has become like Christopher Walken, fun to watch because you never know where he is going to go. Superb in Places in the Heart (1984), Death of a Salesman (1985), The Glass Menagerie (1987), Dangerous Liaisons (1988) right through to Red (2012) as the goofy ex-CIA operative, he is constantly evolving, even today. As Duke, we know he is dangerous but how cool is it we get to see how bad ass he is?
And Colin Farrell as the immaculately dressed Simon is superbly sinister. He has one single scene which defines him. In the middle of a vicious fight, slammed into a wall, he smiles, before getting back into it, clearly having the time of his life.
The troubles with the script are legion, and the actors try valiantly to give the film more substance than it deserves. Sometimes not even the greats can save things
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.