On a recent interview with Seth Meyers, Jessica Chastain got to talking about an upcoming spy thriller she conceived, produced, and starred in. The 355 is set for release next January, a female-driven international espionage thriller with an all-star cast. Sounds badass, right?
Well, I guess Chastain wanted a dry run first.
Ava stars producer Jessica Chastain as the eponymous assassin. The movie goes into Ava’s backstory at GREAT length, but suffice to say that she’s a recovering alcoholic who grew up in Boston with a dysfunctional family. Long story short, a bunch of personal problems drove her away from home and into the military, and she went from there into employment for a shadowy mercenary syndicate.
To make yet another long story short, Ava has gotten into the habit of talking with her targets before killing them, in an effort to cleanse their consciences and her own. The upper management doesn’t like that, so they send another agent to try and kill her.
Yeah, the antagonist’s big plan here is “Let’s kill the cold-blooded killing machine and hope it doesn’t backfire terribly.” Because that exact same plan worked out so well in John Wick, Kill Bill, American Ultra, Red (2010), the entire Jason Bourne franchise…
Meanwhile, Ava has gone back home to Boston for the first time in eight years. Her mother (played by Geena Davis) just had a minor heart attack and her father just died, so that’s going great. Also, her ex-fiance (Michael, played by Common) just got engaged to her sister (Judy, played by Jess Weixler), so that’s a bona fide trainwreck.
Let’s start with the positives. First and foremost, this goddamn cast. Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Jess Weixler, Geena Davis, Common, Colin Farrell, they got Ioan Gruffudd in there for the prologue… Shit, even the supporting players are all aces. The seasoned character actor Joan Chen makes a welcome appearance, ditto for the wonderful up-and-comer Diana Silvers.
Then we have Bear McCreary, still one of my favorite composers working today. It bears remembering that this is a film about a covert assassin, so we need a musical score that conveys an underlying threat, even when the action onscreen looks perfectly mundane. What McCreary delivered was a pulsing rock techno soundtrack with a sly and seductive theme. It had me hooked from the very first frame.
All of this beautifully serves to lift up an undercooked screenplay and weak direction.
The film was written by Matthew Newton, the… *ahem* controversial writer/director behind From Nowhere, Who We Are Now, and Three Blind Mice, three movies that apparently screened at a lot of film festivals and basically nowhere else. Newton was going to direct this movie too, until his long history with addiction, mental illness, and domestic abuse came to light.
Enter Tate Taylor, the man who directed… um, The Help. He also directed The Girl on the Train, Get on Up, and Ma. And this is the resume of the man who’s directing an action spy thriller. You can start to see the problem.
Sure enough, the fight scenes bear all the hallmarks of cinematic action in the hands of someone who isn’t an action director. Namely, while the actors are all putting in fine work and the choreography is wonderful in theory, the stunts were all cut to shit in the editing room. The end result is passable, sure, but it’s not great.
To be clear, this is not the first time we’ve seen an actor positioned as a “lone wolf” action hero in recent memory. Off the top of my head, I could list Taken, Haywire, Lucy, Hanna, Red Sparrow, Colombiana, Atomic Blonde, The Rhythm Section, Anna, and of course John Wick as recent examples that this movie was plainly trying to crib from. The best of these films leaned into the heightened and absurd nature of action cinema, with gimmicks and world-building that complemented the jaw-dropping fight scenes.
This film, on the other hand, spends pretty much all of its copious downtime on Ava’s tragic backstory, her history with alcoholism, her family drama, and so on.
It makes a kind of sense, as the characters are all superbly fleshed out and there’s a lot here for such insanely talented actors to sink their teeth into. This is very clearly where the director and the cast were most comfortable, so I understand the temptation to focus on this through most of the runtime. Except for the obvious problem that this meshes with the action about as well as iced tea in gasoline.
What’s crazy is, this wasn’t unsalvageable. Ava is paranoid that people are trying to kill her. Are her handlers lying to her when they say that everything’s okay? Is someone else trying to kill her for some reason? Is it just a natural side effect of her job, or maybe withdrawal from her addiction is messing with her head?
All of this could potentially have made for some breathtaking suspense. If only the filmmakers didn’t tell us right up front who was trying to kill her, why they wanted her dead, how they were going to try, and when they were going to strike next. Such a wasted opportunity.
At this point, I want to repeat emphatically that this is an insanely overqualified cast and they all do the best they can with what they’re given. After all, we’ve already seen enough of these actors — most especially Jessica Chastain — to know that they can handle action, drama, comedy, and anything else that anyone could possibly throw at them. Alas, I’m afraid I have to single out Common as the weak link. I love the guy, don’t get me wrong, but he was sadly miscast for that particular role.
Then we have the screenwriter. Looking at this female-driven picture about coping with addiction and atoning for past transgressions, it’s easy to assume that Newton wrote this to try and exorcise some of his old demons. I can respect that. And if so, that would make this a movie about many deeply personal subjects, and he chose to walk away from directing it so that his own baggage wouldn’t weigh down the film. That’s admirable.
With all of that said, trying to convey these ideas through an introspective family drama by way of a taut espionage thriller simply does not work. The two aspects don’t mesh together into a cohesive whole, and so the film ends without making much of any coherent statement on the subject. Could Newton have found and delivered that balance if he was in the director’s chair? Who knows? Maybe the screenwriter chose the wrong genre and made the task impossible, or maybe the guy they hired just wasn’t equal to the task. Either way, it falls apart.
Oh, and also, while I’m not averse to profanity, there are a lot of awkward and excessive F-bombs being dropped here. It makes for clumsy and amateurish dialogue. You’re no David Mamet, buddy, I’m just saying.
What’s crazy about Ava is that if you break the film down into its individual parts, they’re all okay. The cast is phenomenal. The score is great. The family drama is compelling. The addiction angle is solid and well-acted. The action is… well, it’s mediocre, but it’s still passable. Everything about this movie is fine until all the pieces are put together, and it all evens out into a pile of “meh”.
My recommendation: Save your time and money for when The 355 comes out.