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The “movie star,” that mysterious creature whose blinding charisma pulls everyone into its irresistible orbit, is becoming an endangered species. That makes Jennifer Lopez—a movie star par excellence—the onscreen equivalent of a majestic snow leopard. Lopez can easily carry a film on her own, and her latest project, “The Mother,” is lucky to have her.
That’s not to say that the latest film from director Niki Caro (“Mulan”) and a screenwriting team led by “Underground” creator Misha Green would totally sink without its star. Like most Netflix movies, “The Mother” would be a perfectly serviceable thing to have on in the background while you tidied the living room or answered emails on your phone. The spy-movie setup is generic enough to follow while doing something else, and the villains’ motivations are only as specific as the plot needs them to be, which is to say, not very specific at all.
“The Mother” was screened for critics in theaters, where the immersive setup makes the paint-by-numbers portions of the plot really stick out. A handful of odd stylistic choices also attract attention in this format: A recurring visual motif of wide-angle shots with blurred edges; odd, jumpy edits seem to compensate for a lack of coverage on set.
But the big screen also provides a bigger canvas for the film’s picturesque locations, like wild Tlingit Bay, Alaska, the sweltering streets of Havana—and, uh, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Every spy needs a place to hide out.) More importantly, it’s also more real estate for Lopez’s face.
For the most part, that billion-dollar mug is set into an expression of grim determination in “The Mother,” which opens with an unnamed FBI informant (Lopez) and her handler Cruise (Omari Hardwick) barely escaping from a bloody attack on an FBI safe house in suburban Indiana. The informant soon becomes The Mother, as the pregnant ex-spy gives birth to a baby girl while in the hospital recovering from her wounds. She has two options: Either escape with the infant and stay on the run forever or sign over her parental rights so her daughter can have a normal life. She chooses the latter.
She never signs away her emotional commitment, however. And she continues to watch expectantly from the sidelines, waiting for the day when her past will also shape young Zoe’s (Lucy Paez) life. And indeed, just after Zoe’s 12th birthday, The Mother’s friend and confidant, Jons (Paul Raci), comes by her isolated Alaskan lakeside cabin with a message: Zoe is in danger. It’s go time.
As with her celebrated turn as a pole dancer in “Hustlers,” much of the excitement in “The Mother” is watching Lopez in motion. She swings a knife in hand-to-hand combat. She jumps across the roofs of cars in an urban foot chase. Even the subtle movement of loading and cocking a sniper rifle while lying belly-down on a rooftop is thrilling when she does it. Lopez translates her background as a dancer into gritty action choreography with the ease of a seasoned professional.
The film shifts gears about halfway in, as Zoe and her mother retreat to Mom’s cabin for a hybrid bonding session and wilderness survival course leading up to the fiery action finale. “The Mother” is arguably too long at 115 minutes, but it’s difficult to say which scenes, in particular, could have been cut; in its quieter moments, both Lopez and her young co-star Paez give convincing performances as the gruff mentor and pouty student.
If anything, the film could have used more of these moments, which feel real and tangible compared to the cardboard cut-out bad guys played by Joseph Fiennes and Gael Garcia Bernal. Either of these men, we’re told, could be Zoe’s father, and it’s their obsession with The Mother that drives the rest of the narrative. Get in line, fellas.
On Netflix now.
Jennifer Lopez as Mother
Joseph Fiennes as Adrian
Omari Hardwick as Cruise
Gael García Bernal as Hector
Paul Raci as Jons
Lucy Paez as Zoe