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The Mother Review: Don't Mess With J.Lo

  • Jennifer Lopez is fantastic
  • It's beautifully shot for the most part
  • The violence is often very creative
  • Some of the sound design is a little jarring
  • The visuals sometimes feel disjointed

Jennifer Lopez has been such a pop culture fixture for such a significant period at this point that it would be easy to distill any acting performance she gives down to the simple power of her presence. She commands attention, and she does it across eras and mediums, to such a powerful degree that it's no wonder so many people want to watch her in just about any role. In "The Mother," the new thriller from director Niki Caro ("Mulan," "Whale Rider"), Lopez once again exudes that same sense of endless charisma that she's shown her entire career, so of course we want to see what she's doing in any given scene. It's thanks to her very existence onscreen the film works as something watchable.

But as she's shown repeatedly in films ranging from "Out of Sight" to "Hustlers," Lopez has a knack for brushing in depth and emotional intensity even when her sheer presence would be enough to coast through a role. She's a star and she's an actor, and when she's at her best you can see not just the attention to craft at work in her performances, but the depth and versatility she brings to a wide array of roles. That depth, and Lopez's commitment to what the title role in this film requires, elevates "The Mother" beyond its occasionally predictable action movie trappings, and reminds us that its star is a force to be reckoned with in pretty much any genre.

One Bad Mother

Lopez enters the film as an unnamed woman whose reputation precedes her, a military veteran and accomplished sniper who turned to weapons dealing after serving overseas, and eventually got caught between two very bad men (Joseph Fiennes and Gael Garcia Bernal), ultimately getting pregnant with one of them. With her back against the wall in FBI custody, she's prepared to make a deal, but her arms dealer ex-boyfriend Adrian (Fiennes) moves faster than the FBI. Just days later, our Mother has given her newborn baby up to the foster system and vanished to Alaska, where she lives off the land and receives regular updates on her daughter's life from the one FBI agent (Omari Hardwick) sympathetic to her situation.

But The Mother's sins were bound to catch up to her eventually, and when she gets word that her exes have decided to target her now 12-year-old daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), she springs into action, ready to protect the girl against what's coming, and maybe even teach her how to protect herself.

The central dynamics at play here, sculpted out by writers Misha Green, Andrea Berloff, and Peter Craig, will be familiar to seasoned action viewers, but that doesn't make their well-worn comforts any less accessible or interesting. There's the learned coldness of Lopez's character as she takes on her daughter as a trainee more than a relative, the odd couple action dynamics of mother and daughter surviving side-by-side, and of course, the "Lone Wolf & Cub"-esque juxtaposition that stokes emotional fires at every turn, as Lopez's Mother realizes any amount of distance she tries to place in her heart will eventually melt away. There's a simplicity to the way these particular ingredients are laid out, but that's never to the film's detriment. Instead, despite a few missteps, "The Mother" works because the film allows Lopez to carry the narrative on her capable shoulders, and breathe life into every action beat with the force of her acting chops.

Blood in the snow

Much of "The Mother" unfolds in Alaska, where the Mother and Zoe are forced to survive and eventually defend themselves against the coming of onslaught of those the Mother betrayed 12 years earlier. While there are other action sequences worth celebrating (including a rather captivating parking garage sequence early on), the icy wilderness is the grandest stage in the film, and Caro clearly knows it. She builds an environment around mother and daughter, full of visual metaphors and opportunities for eye-popping violence, then allows her leads to play in the snow, delivering on most of the promises set forth by the film's careful table-setting. The action that follows is occasionally predictable, and occasionally a bit stiff, and the film is sometimes hampered by questionable lens choices and sound editing, but in the end, it doesn't matter much. The stage is set very well, and the actors do the rest.

Lopez devotes herself completely to this portrait of a woman who's trying to push every ounce of emotion away in the hope of preserving a single life, and while she never quite disappears and remains the movie star we know her to be, that sense of commitment creates a kind of magic. Lopez is, for all her glamour and spark, also a member of that elite group of actors who can convince us that she's capable of just about anything. No matter what job she's pretending to have in any given film, she can appear very, very good at it, and it turns out that also holds true for "trained killer turned survivalist protector." Draped in the layers of winter and shouldering a rifle, she looks right at home amid the harshness, not standing out from it but appearing to directly wrestle with it, and win, at any given moment. Combined with her immediate and understated chemistry with Paez, and it's a very engaging, even thrilling performance that reminds us all just how good she is, and how far she can push herself.

"The Mother" may at times feel like somewhat run-of-the-mill action movie fare, but each time it drifts in that direction, the sheer force of talent in front of and behind the camera rises us to remind us why we're watching. That makes it an immediate action crowd pleaser, and another display of the often astonishing versatility of Jennifer Lopez.

"The Mother" hits Netflix May 12.