A Movie Only a ‘Mother’ Could Love

A strange, shallow gender-bending action thriller starring Jennifer Lopez

Jenny from the Block becomes Lady Assassin Lopez in the glossy Netflix thriller The Mother, Niki Caro’s shallow gender-bending actioner that trades trigger-happy machismo for body-count maternal longing. The mama-grizzly pitch is promising—imagine if Jason Bourne had a baby, then had to give up the tyke and become an anonymous guardian angel—but the follow-through falls short, settling for kinetic thrills over hard-earned emotions. It’s a shame, since Lopez (credited only as The Mother) brings real pathos to her underdeveloped role, hinting at the deeper levels a richer script could have conjured.

The Mother is a sexy woman with a shady past: in a whiz-bang opening, we meet the mysterious femme fatale in a nondescript midwestern FBI safe house. She’s a captive assassin negotiating with the feds, they hint that her position might have been compromised, she quickly calculates that they’ll all be dead soon. She’s right, in a hair-trigger sequence that leaves a half-dozen people with bullets in their heads. She evades the gunfire, then MacGyver’s an improvised explosive device out of household chemicals and narrowly evades a deadly mercenary kingpin named Adrian Lovell (Joseph Fiennes)—her former lover and boss. The only hitch? He shivs her in the belly. Her very pregnant belly.

THE MOTHER ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Niki Caro
Written by: Misha Green, Andrea Berloff, Peter Craig
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Joseph Fiennes, Omari Hardwick, Gael Garcia Bernal, Lucy Paez
Running time: 115 min

The baby survives, but the FBI makes The Mother sign a “Termination of Parental Rights” contract and put her newborn daughter up for adoption. They promise to give her annual updates so The Mother knows her girl is safe—but they won’t allow contact, since it’s the only way to ensure the kid’s protection as possible bait. Which of course it isn’t. Because twelve years later, Lovell’s goons finally track down the girl, now a tweener named Zoe (Lucy Paez), and kidnap her to smoke out one very fuming Mother.

Caro’s film is a disorienting mix of the exotic and banal, ping-ponging between photogenic climate extremes like Cuba and Alaska and forgettable midwestern towns in Indiana and Illinois. It’s also a strange combination of people who are either ruthlessly professional or haplessly ineffective. The Mother’s FBI contact is a soft-spoken hunk named William Cruise (Omari Hardwick), a seemingly capable agent who almost comically keeps suffering punches, bullet wounds, car crashes, and literal back stabs. Meanwhile, The Mother appears out of thin air to best her opponents with just the right firepower, always wielding impressive physical skills and conjuring motorbikes or snowmobiles with ease.

Her Cliff-Notes backstory, such as it is, involves tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before recruitment to serve as a black-ops gun-for-hire in Lovell’s seedy underworld, which also includes randy arms dealer Hector Alvarez (Gael Garcia Bernal). Lovell’s pitch: “Powerful people want things that aren’t on the menu.” Why The Mother seems so blithely willing to join a shadowy cabal of amoral thugs? No idea. Justifying it might have made the movie more complex, but whatever. J. Lo’s a lethal weapon!

The Mother eventually has a showdown in Havana with horndog Hector, which is one of the film’s most arresting scenes: candlelit cinematography bathes the duo as Hector lasciviously hints at their apparently kinky but naggingly vague past. Bernal makes hay with the paper-thin B-movie role, while Lopez does her best to bring dignity to their devolving drama.

Same goes for her relationship with Zoe, especially when the two go into hiding up north in Tlingit Bay’s frosty frontier. There’s a genuinely absorbing dynamic between the pair—a terrified and resentful pre-teen forced to live with the biological mom who’s literally been weaponized to swap any nurturing instincts for a steely killing efficiency. The Mother is doing her best to teach Zoe survival skills—hunting, shooting, operating heavy machinery—in a series of scenes that could have been hilarious and harrowing but instead settle for mildly amusing and kind of sobering. There’s a lot of regret peppered throughout The Mother, but the biggest one is thinking about what kind of touching, traumatic tale the filmmakers could have birthed.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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