J.Lo’s ‘The Mother’ Is Not the Jenny-With-The-Glock Thriller You Hoped For
In the future, every movie star over the age of 45 will get to play a role with a particular set of skills. Skills their characters will have acquired over a very long career — maybe as an assassin, possibly as a government-sanctioned operative, or perhaps just as your run-of-the-mill military badass. Skills that make them a nightmare for people like those unfortunate character actors and/or day players cast as thugs, mercenaries, and international criminal masterminds. If those bad guys had let those abducted wives/kids/partners/pets go, that would have been the end of it. But the baddies didn’t, and now the star will look for these people, they will find these people, yadda yadda yadda.
It’s now Jennifer Lopez’s turn to furrow her brow and scowl and unleash hell on those who dare to threaten the safety of her loved ones, and The Mother is designed to be her big grizzly-mama Taken moment. Her character — no name, lest the audience be distracted by such details; she’s just “The Mother,” the better to remind you of what’s motivating the body count — was the single best sharpshooter the Army ever produced. She’s recruited by a dodgy British officer (Joseph Fiennes), who also deals arms on the black market, for a number of off-the-books jobs. One of the gigs involves a client (Gael García Bernal) looking for firepower. Both of the men develop romantic attachments with her. One of them gets her pregnant.
After she decides to flip to the Feds, an assassin is sent to exterminate the asset with extreme prejudice and, long story short, she gives birth to her baby on an accelerated timetable. According to one of the F.B.I. suits — why, hello there, our cameo-ing friend Edie Falco! — The Mother must give up her daughter in order to keep the newborn from becoming collateral damage. She also has to go into hiding, and fast. Kindly agent William Cruise (Omari Hardwick), which is an A+ name for any male in an action movie, offers to have his sister adopt the child and promises to send annual updates.
A dozen years pass. The Mother has been living off the grid, in an isolated cabin in Alaska. Her skills with a rifle and a knife are now solely used for hunting and keeping natural predators away, though she refuses to shoot the single most symbolic female wolf in movie history. Then she finds out her now-tween child, who goes by Zoe (Lucy Paez), may be in danger. An undercover trip to the Midwest confirms it. She then has to rescue the girl, smuggle her back to the 49th state for protection, and train the youngster in the art of killing just in case the bad guys find them. Spoiler alert: The bad guys totally find them.
Lopez started out as a dancer, and her best screen work — our personal canon would include Selena, Out of Sight, Hustlers and the “I’m Glad” music video — takes full advantage of how physical a performer she is. (You don’t need to witness behind-the-scenes footage of her painstakingly learning how to slide down a stripper pole like a seasoned pro to recognize the hard work she put in to mastering it.) Yet so much of the whole “J.Lo, Superstar!” mythology is about demanding you pay attention to just how much commitment she’s bringing to everything she’s doing — call it the Tom Cruise Syndrome — and the bulk of The Mother involves watching her treat globetrotting-thriller set pieces like dance routines. There’s a whiff of sweat-drenched choreography hovering over even the least kinetic fights, chase scenes, and shootouts. It feels like it took a lot to create this Jenny with the Glock.
It helps that director Niki Caro can stage sound and fury (she did the recent live-action remake of Mulan), and viewers get enough of Lopez running, jumping, punching, stomach-crawling under cars, and speeding around on motorcycles to suggest she passed her Action Hero 101 crash courses with flying colors. The model may be beast-mode Jason Bourne, but emoting-wise, her professional badass-for-hire is closer to Charles Bronson — barring a few primal screams and pre–torturing-a-lackey shrieks, the character keeps everything on extreme lockdown. Which too often translates as a blank, stoic remove that doesn’t suit the actor, and offers up clenched-jaw exchanges that does Lopez, her scene partners, or the movie zero favors.
The Teflon Mom act gets some dings and scrapes in the later scenes with Paez, who hits upon a customized blend of petulant teen angst, PTSD, and poking her suspiciously protective guardian’s pressure points. Ditto a standoff with Bernal, where he batters her resolve with a barrage of louche campiness. (You wish Hardwick had more screen time and more to do, and Fiennes’ portrayal of a villain is a solid 7 on the 1-10 Mustache-Twirling Scale.) In fact, the whole notion of playing off maternal sacrifice mixed with killing-machine expertise — What if Stella Dallas could take down someone with a head shot from 500 yards? — feels like a high-concept idea made for someone like Lopez. But so much of The Mother feels like a movie star doing an imitation of what they think a tough, serious, jaded hero is like rather than actually playing one. Lopez is an actor with a particularly deep set of skills. You wish she’d brought some more of her expressive ones to this revenge flick.
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