Once loaded with connotations of exoticism and movie-star glamor, Ava now ranks annually among the most popular girls’ names in America, and it seems its ubiquity is extending to the film world: Tate Taylor’s female-starring shoot-’em-up “Ava” is the third film bearing that title to crop up in as many years. It, too, has the air of something that may once have been unusual in conception only to emerge as rather generic. Built around Jessica Chastain as an ice-cool, globe-trotting assassin facing a tangle of personal and professional challenges when she returns home to Boston, the film provides an adequate showcase for its producer-star’s unexpected prowess as an action hero — yet Matthew Newton’s skimpy, dial-a-cliché script makes the whole enterprise feel more like a mid-range series pilot than a major star vehicle.
At the very least, you’d probably tune in to the second episode — if only to further indulge the exertions of a cast way above the pay grade of this B-list material. Where else are you going to find bloody, athletic scenes of hand-to-hand combat between Chastain and Joan Chen, or Colin Farrell and John Malkovich? Replace a couple of the tony names here and you’d immediately be in straight-to-VOD territory — which, as it happens, has been the film’s fate in the U.K., Canada and other regions, though a Stateside theatrical run is scheduled for Sept. 25, following a month-long window on DirecTV.
Newton’s involvement may also account for the film’s diminished profile. The Australian writer-director (who had a blistering 2008 festival hit with “Three Blind Mice”) was set to direct “Ava” before past incidents of domestic assault returned to light, and was swiftly replaced by Chastain’s “The Help” director Tate Taylor, who continues to bring an impersonal brand of genre varnish to the table. (If last year’s “Ma” hinted at a slightly lurid, tongue-in-cheek perversity in his arsenal, he’s all business here.) It’s hard not to wonder if any more distinctive notes in the script have gone missing along the way: It’s not obvious what drew Chastain, in particular, to a hired-gun story that proceeds as rigorously by the book as its lone-wolf protagonist inevitably strays from it.
Following a prologue that introduces a blonde-wigged Ava as she clinically deceives and dispatches a corrupt British businessman (Ioan Gruffudd), the opening credit sequence serves up her entire backstory in convenient montage mode. A gifted student who went off the rails following a DUI incident at college, she beats her drug addiction and alcoholism by joining the army — after which she was drafted into a hazily defined black ops organization, becoming its most ruthless assassin under the caustically paternal mentorship of Duke (Malkovich). Ava is given no sense of what her targets have done to merit their fate, which gnaws away at her carefully concealed conscience; for the equally uninformed audience, meanwhile, this absence of context gives the film’s many elaborately choreographed fight scenes an air of hollow detachment.
Instead, the script invites us to focus on a variety of crises involving her estranged, dysfunctional family, with whom she’s reunited after a botched high-stakes operation in Riyadh puts the heat on her, and she heads home to Beantown to cool off. Her prickly, hospitalized mother (Geena Davis) and resentful sister Jude (Jess Weixler), who believe she’s been working as a U.N. administrator in Europe for the past eight years, aren’t exactly welcoming: Their froideur is faintly explained by a soupy mass of daddy issues, as well as a love triangle pivoting on Jude’s seemingly stand-up boyfriend Michael (Common). Yet getting us emotionally invested in the personal problems of a professional cypher is a trick that “Ava” never pulls off, with key revelations haphazardly (and sometimes quite senselessly) surfacing in the course of her murderous day-to-day business — none of which we’re much meant to care about, as it happena.
“Ava” takes an equally laissez-faire attitude to the imminent threat posed by Simon (a pertly mustachioed Farrell), another protégé of Duke’s who wants her dead for reasons that might be clearer if we knew anything about the organization they all work for, beyond the simple fact of their working for it. This inattention to detail across the board gives Newton’s script the air of a half-dozen subplots vying for dominance, and no central one: Lots of things happen in “Ava” — some of them quite exciting in the moment — but what it’s actually about isn’t immediately clear. As it is, the film counts heavily on the steely, resolute presence of Chastain (in a role you’d automatically earmark for Charlize Theron) to galvanize things with the sheer set of her jaw. She just about does, but isn’t given much in return.
Taylor keeps things nominally stylish in a way that doesn’t betray any particular style. Veteran cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt applies a slick of bright metallic lipgloss to action set pieces and intimate domestic scenes alike. Editor Zach Staenberg (“The Matrix”) chops up the combat sequences in ways that inspire due admiration for the high-end stunt work but no real astonishment over their stagingm while Bear McCreary’s score burbles away with consistent electronic menace. All this is effective enough, but there’s a stranger, spikier, more unnerving film to be pulled from the sleek genre carapace of “Ava,” a film less interested in what makes a contract killer tick than in the superhuman Swiss-watch regularity of her ticking in the first place.