Popcorn with Zenger: ‘Ava’ would be more believable as a cartoon but we’re stuck with live action

In a dull, generic flop, Jessica Chastain proves middle-aged women are not superhuman.

ALPHARETTA, Ga. — The Rundown: Sometimes the story behind a movie is far more entertaining than what’s on the screen.

“Ava” made headlines for all the wrong reasons. Actress Jessica Chastain announced the first film by her production company, Freckle Films, in 2018. The company had set its sights on showcasing female talent both in front of and behind the camera. Chastain leads the way in this project, which profiles a female assassin in a male-dominated world hoping to diversify the field of American action heroes. Instead of hiring a woman to create and run “Ava,” however, they chose Matthew Newton to write and direct.

This pick drew the online ire of feminists: The director was not just any man, but one with a lengthy history of violence against women. Newton, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has been arrested many times for incidents of abuse. Chastain eventually replaced him on set, but his script remained.

Whether a new script would have saved this movie is a debate worth having because “Ava” might be the worst film of 2020. And that’s saying something.

Jessica Chastain Is a contract killer in “Ava”. (Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The Story: Jessica Chastain stars as Ava Faulkner, an assassin hired to get close to high-profile targets and eliminate them. Ava is a recovering alcoholic who ran away from her home more than eight years ago. She struggles to keep her personal life from affecting her livelihood, especially when her sister and mother suddenly return to her life.

While on a mission in Saudi Arabia, she lures a German general to kill and plans to make his death look like a heart attack. But her cover is blown when two guards burst in. Ava is forced to fight her way out of the country. The bad intel she got wasn’t an accident, we learn: Her employer Simon (Colin Farrell) is irate with Ava for talking to her targets before she kills them.

Without the trust of her own agency, Ava must use her well-developed skills to survive the deadly onslaught that awaits her.

Bright Spots: Jessica Chastain looks great. That’s about it.

Weak Spots: Ava is the equivalent of a 96-minute TED talk on poor filmmaking. Poor writing, poor acting, poor special effects, poor action, poor stunt choreography. If this film lacked any more value and quality, Zimbabwe might use it as currency.

It’s hard to understand Hollywood’s recent obsession with having middle-age women kicking butt like James Bond. But their desire for this form of female empowerment fails one important audience exam: the eye test.

If you’re watching a movie and a 100-foot-tall green monster is leveling an entire city, your brain turns its realism filter off and you enjoy the flick. But in a world of femme fatales, Chastain doesn’t look the part. If it were Gina Carano, maybe. But watching a 40-ish soccer mom in a petite frame clear the room of armed Saudi guards twice her size is enough to make Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud die of secondhand cringe.

Whenever you hire the rapper Common to play a serious role in a film, you can presume you’re grading an acting test on a curve. The chemistry that he and Jessica share as a couple is about as authentic as a Saturday morning cartoon. The film digs up Geena Davis in a role that you at least hope she was paid well for, considering how she acts like the film was wasting her time and not ours. John Malkovich and Colin Farrell produce the best moments.

The effects are low-budget. We see stock footage of cities brought down by green-screen shadowing that editors couldn’t get right.

The Takeaway: It’s easy to throw Matthew Newton under the bus for a film like this, and he deserves much of the blame. But “Ava” fails on every level, and there’s plenty of blame to pass around. With no thrills and even less action, “Ava” bottoms out as one of the most soulless films of the year.

See or Skip: “Ava” is so dull and generic that its creators don’t want you to know it exists, let alone watch it.

(Edited by David Martosko and Ganesh Swaminath Lakshman)