Great cast can’t save humdrum thriller ‘Ava’

Jessica Chastain in Ava / Netflix

For an inexpensive action-thriller, “Ava” is not a bad watch.

It’s the type of movie you tune into late in the evening when you’re not quite ready to go to bed, but you don’t want to watch anything that’s going to stimulate the gears in your mind, either.

It’s a movie you can snooze to without many regrets.

That’s slack praise for a film starring Jessica Chastain and featuring a cast that includes John Malkovich, Geena Davis, Joan Chen, and Colin Farrel, but it’s about all I can muster. It’s clear each of them were slumming for a paycheck in the film directed by Tate Taylor from a script by Matthew Newton. They no doubt tried to make the movie work.

Who am I to question them for picking up a paycheck?

Chastain plays Ava, a woman who changed her career path to become an assassin in an effort to cope with her alcoholism. She’s estranged from her overbearing mother (Davis), her sister, Judy (Jess Weixler), who is now engaged to Ava’s gambling-addicted former boyfriend, Michael (Common). However, sensing that her assassination game is coming to end, she returns home to visit and make her peace.

Duke (Malkovich) is Ava’s mentor and handler, who is instructed to cut her loose by his superior Simon (Ferrel) because of her sloppiness on the job. Duke trained both Ava and Simon, and he struggles with the fate that is coming Ava’s way.

The best part of the film are the fights, particularly one when Duke challenges Simon at his home. For an older fella, Duke is a tough nut to crack.

The movie’s climax features a bloody, hotel-room showdown between a drunken Ava and Simon that ends up with the two battling to the finish at a nearby construction site. It’s a decent fight scene in this paint-by-the-numbers action movie.

The melodrama between Ava, her mom, sister, and former boyfriend is bland and ineffective, although Davis is amusing as the idiosyncratic and selfish mom.

While I appreciate the talent on display in this movie — their charisma helps keep the film afloat — it’s all but wasted here in an effort that’s beneath their collective level of talent.

(R) 1 hr. 37 min.
Grade: C-

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Classic Corner – Sweet Smell of Success

Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Susan Harrison in Sweet Smell of Success / United Artists

Newspaper columnists once had the clout to make or break politicians, entertainers, businessmen, and it’s that era that the scene is set for director Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” a sordid tale of corruption and power that runs amok as a influential and popular tastemaker J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) uses his influence to try and control his sister Susan’s (Susan Harrison) life.

Lancaster’s Hunsecker, based on noted gossip columnist Walter Winchell, fights with his pen, but also casts a brutish and bullying image on the big screen as a man, who gets what he wants by any means necessary. While Hunsecker strides among the elite, the film’s plot focuses on his obsession with controlling his sister, especially who she dates.

Hunsecker’s doesn’t believe jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner) is good for his sister so he hires scuffling publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to submarine Dallas’ career by planting rumors about Dallas being a pot-smoking Communist. Falco had previously run afoul of Hunsecker, and he does the dirty deed in a slimy attempt to crawl back into his good graces

After Dallas is fired, Hunsecker connives to get him his job back by placing a call in favor of the fired guitarist in front of Dallas and Susan. Dallas can’t stand being beholden to a bully like Hunsecker and lets him know it. Susan then breaks her relationship off from Dallas to keep him out of Hunsecker’s vengeful crosshairs.

Hunsecker’s too vengeful to let Dallas’ insult to him go. He forces Falco to plant marijuana on Dallas, so he’ll be arrested and roughed up by corrupt cop Lt. Harry Kello (Emille Meyer).

The scummy Falco is then set up by Susan, who feigns a suicide attempt to lure him to Hunsecker’ penthouse apartment. Hunsecker’s enraged when he finds Falco there, suspecting he is trying to take advantage of his broken-hearted sister. In the searing climax, Falco and Hunsecker each get what they deserve in this hard-hitting noir classic.

Though the movie wasn’t well received upon its debut, it’s acclaim has grown since its 1957 release. The movie repositioned Curtis’ career from being a just a pretty face to being a substantial actor who could handle weighty roles.
Lancaster is at the top of his game in the role, projecting intelligence, arrogance, and menace despite his buttoned-down look.

Cinematographer James Wong Howe paradoxically imbues the film with the glamor and grit of mid-century New York City. His lens brings the era to life, grabbing the viewer by the lapels and slapping them around a little bit.

The film’ score, a combination of orchestral music and jazz, sets a frantic yet engulfing tone that adds electricity to the dynamics.

The film’s screenplay, reportedly, was being reworded by day-to-day on the set with pages being shot hot off the typewriter no doubt adds to the immediacy and momentum of the film.

The movie plays at 9 p.m. Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies.