There’s nothing new under the midnight sun in The Mother, a vaguely feminist action-thriller directed by Niki Caro (North Country, Whale Rider) as a star vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. Lopez essays an over-familiar, if unnamed character, dubbed only “mother” in the credits and marketing materials, who spends the bulk of the film’s nearly two-hour running time shooting her way through hordes of no-face henchmen sent by the two villainous men who’ve all but ruined her life: Adrian Lovell (Joseph Fiennes), an ex-SAS operative turned arms dealer, and Hector Álvarez (Gael García Bernal), a modestly flamboyant gang boss who cameos in exactly two scenes. Neither, it seems, could take “no” for an answer.
The title character’s unfortunate entanglement with Lovell, Álvarez, and their respective illicit business schemes leads to an extended prologue involving a very pregnant mother (Lopez) attempting to convince her FBI handlers that Lovell and Álvarez are very bad men all too eager to murder nameless FBI agents to get to her. Only one agent, William Cruise (Omari Hardwick), bothers to listen to the title character’s dire warnings in time to save himself from an attack squad. The other, nameless FBI agents aren’t quite so lucky.
Not surprisingly, the FBI doesn’t take kindly to the title character’s dangerously unlucky presence in their midst, forcing her to give up parental rights to the newly born infant, followed by exile into the Alaskan wilderness where the mother, a former U.S. Army sniper with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, effectively lives off the grid, hunting the local wildlife as needed and keeping a distance from the nearest, sparsely populated town.
It’s all well and good for a solid twelve years until Cruise, repaying a seemingly unpayable debt, contacts the mother and warns her that Lovell and Álvarez have tracked her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), to her foster family in Cincinnati, Ohio. In a completely unsurprising plot development, the mother springs into action, putting her semi-dormant special set of skills into action, mowing down various and sundry swarthy henchmen with video-game efficiency.
From there, it’s only a hop, skip, and an airplane ride to Havana, Cuba, for a life-or-death throw-down with Álvarez who, like Lovell, might be Zoe’s biological father. In another non-shocker, Zoe’s life lies in the balance. At least the scenes in Cuba function as a contrast to the icy, chilly Alaska-set scenes and the bland, middle-America ones where Zoe and her foster family enjoyed an unadventurous, bourgeois life. Lopez does it all, punching and shooting in one scene, riding a stolen motorcycle in another, and borrowing a pastel-hued, mid-20th-century car to run down one of Álvarez’s more elusive lieutenants on one of Havana’s busier thoroughfares.
After several, all-too-brief set-pieces, The Mother takes an extended respite from action-oriented scenes as the title character, a mother in biological name only, shares much-needed bonding time with her reluctant daughter. Said mother-daughter bonding includes survivalist staples like tracking and shooting a forest-dwelling stag minding its own business, field dressing newly deceased wildlife offscreen, and a class in Chekhov’s Sniper 101 basics. It’s not long before the title character’s violence-prone past catches up with her one last time in a third act overflowing with semi-automatic gunfire, IEDs going boom, and intense hand-to-hand combat eerily reminiscent of Renny Harlin’s under-appreciated John McClane sequel, Die Hard 2.
Unsurprisingly, Lopez makes it all watchable, committing to the physical demands of the role with admirable plausibility and a heretofore untapped athleticism and gracefulness. The Mother still qualifies as a movie-star role, after all. Lopez is rarely off-screen, almost always the centre of the camera’s attention, but that doesn’t make her any less watchable. And while a derivative script credited to Andrea Berloff, Peter Craig, and Misha Green goes where too many action-thrillers have gone before, Caro’s efficient, economic direction helps to overcome The Mother’s periodic speed bumps, logic lapses, and momentum hits.
The Mother is now streaming on Netflix.