Ask any great screen fighter, and they’ll tell you: Movie fighting is much more like dancing than like real fighting. Bruce Lee was famously a champion cha-cha dancer, Patrick Swayze successfully transitioned from dancer to action star, and scores of movies from India have shown how terrific dancers make for terrific screen fighters.
That’s the opportunity director Niki Caro (The Whale RiderDisney’s live-action Mulan) has with Netflix’s The Mother, a dark action thriller starring Jennifer Lopez as a nameless assassin thrust back into action to protect the daughter she gave up at birth. Lopez is a singular talent who has excelled in the crime genre with out of sight and Hustlers. She’s an enjoyable comedic actor, and she’s particularly strong as a dancer, coming up as a Fly Girl on In Living Color before hitting global superstardom through her dance-centric music videos.
Unfortunately, neither of those skills gets much use in The Mother, which doesn’t give her much to work with. The plot and her character are darkly serious, and the most exciting action sequences involve long-range gun fights and vehicle chase scenes. The few hand-to-hand combat sequences are edited beyond recognition, robbing viewers of any chance to follow the action or appreciate the work Lopez put in for this role.
“She had to learn how to fight, and she’s really good,” second unit director Jeff Habberstad said in a behind-the-scenes video about her training for the role. “Dance and choreography background makes it so she’s just real coordinated.”
The Mother opens at an FBI safe house, where Lopez’s very pregnant character (credited only as “The Mother”) is acting as an informant, with agents interviewing her about a pair of dangerous arms dealers. The interview ends badly, with a hard-to-parse fight scene (thanks to Netflix’s compression and some dark lighting) that leaves her isolated, unfairly on the outs with the FBI, and forced to leave her new daughter behind. (Just saying this sequence strains credulity would be an understatement.) She makes a deal on the side with FBI agent Cruise (Omari Hardwick), who will watch her daughter and contact her if anything goes wrong. Twelve years later, she’s moved to Alaska, and gets the message that something indeed has gone wrong.
The movie’s entire setup is a series of thinly drawn characters and conflicts. In The Motherpeople recite the title character’s biography to her in order to build her legend, rather than letting us see it and believe it for ourselves, or having characters tell each other about her, as if she were a spooky story (a tactic used in John Wickand, more recently, Sisu). Bad guys illustrate that they’re evil by pushing down nuns in the street. Gael García Bernal plays a cartoonishly villainous arms dealer who says things like “You sold your soul to the devil, how do you look so good?” — which sounds like fun, but instead plays out as another rote bad guy who sexually threatens the protagonist with a series of played-out aggressive pickup lines, like some sort of perverted wind-up doll.
The most interesting part about The Mother is the relationship between The Mother and her estranged daughter Zoe (Lucy Paez). A small portion of the movie is spent with the two of them together, as The Mother teaches Zoe to drive, shoot, and fend for herself in the Alaska wilderness. The two of them getting to know each other and forging a connection through circumstance is the best narrative thread in The Mother, but Caro speeds through it quickly. It’s shocking when The Mother at one point refers to the “months” they’ve spent together — it feels like a week, maximum.
Some of the action beats do work better than others. A sniping scene outside a villa sees The Mother picking off guards from far away, allowing for some creative blocking and framing as the bodies drop one by one. Some later sequences in snowy Alaska at least look nicer than the poorly lit interiors from the first half, and are more exciting, including an explosive snowmobile chase and shootout. There’s also a funny gag where The Mother hits a guy with her because as a nearby wedding party does the bouquet toss, and the edit matches his flight through the air with the bouquet’s similar arc.
But Caro and editor David Coulson even undercut those moments with bizarre cuts that pull the story’s punches. In one scene, The Mother is brutally interrogating a gangster, hitting him repeatedly in the face while asking questions. She actually has barbed wire around her fist, which Caro only shows after The Mother is done punching him, rather than building anticipation for the brutality by showing her wrapping her fists with it. Then The Mother waterboards him, which gets her the information she needs within seconds, because apparently we’re in the 2000s again.
The Mother is the second straight-to-streaming Jennifer Lopez action movie this year, following the Prime Video action comedy Shotgun Wedding. While The Mother goes for more emotional depth, Shotgun Wedding at least recognized Lopez’s central talents and used them, giving her an opportunity to flex her comedic chops as well as her movement skills. The end result for Netflix is a missed opportunity to redefine a generational star as a bona fide action hero.
The Mother is streaming on Netflix now.