In a movie career that stretches back 25 years, Jennifer Lopez has on occasion done flaked-out underworld thriller romance (“Out of Sight”), capery action (“Parker”) and revenge (“Enough”). Yet she has never placed herself at the center of such a down-and-dirty, grimly overwrought, execute-now-and-ask-questions-later B-movie as “The Mother.” I’m tempted to call the film “minimalist,” because if you consider its bare-bones screenplay (by three writers!), its convoluted utilitarian set-up, its 2D villains, and its essential formulaic momentum, it’s a prime example of action filmmaking made basic.
Yet “The Mother” is a Netflix action movie, which means that it has a certain flavor of ambition mixed into its pulp stew. The movie, which should have been 90 minutes long (it’s 116), is lumpy and inflated, it’s sketchy yet a touch grandiose, and it’s full of tersely dramatized scenes that somehow feel overly broad. Lopez, as a military sniper turned broker of underground arms deals turned FBI informant turned savagely cool-headed protector of her 12-year-old daughter, is playing a badass not so far removed from those played by Jason Statham or (in his grade-B prime) Bruce Willis, and she’s up to the task. She shoots, she stabs, she chops windpipes, she motorcycles down stone stairways in one of those chase-through-an-ancient-city action scenes (this one takes place in Havana), she tortures a man by punching him with a fist wrapped in barbed wire, she grimaces in muscle-torn agony but mostly looks frozen and implacable. Even more important, she puts her own spin on those familiar motions.
“The Mother” opens in a suburban FBI safe house, where Lopez’s character, who is never named (in the credits she’s just called The Mother — how’s that for out-depersonalizing Jason Bourne?), is being interrogated by an agent about the dangerous place between two criminals that she extracted herself from. “You introduced them?” “Yes.” “You brokered an arms deal between them?” “Yes.” “And you were in a relationship with both of them?” “Yes.” That’s not a situation you could find an analog for in the Statham/Willis universe.
Lopez also got pregnant by one of these men, who after discovering her betrayal actually stabs her pregnant belly. The daughter she’s carrying is saved, but the FBI forces her to give the baby away, so that the child can be placed in a protection program. Raised by adoptive parents, the girl, named Zoe (Lucy Paez), makes it to 12, but she’s still a target for Lopez’s old enemies, who want to use her as bait to lure Lopez out of hiding.
This is a rather tortured scenario, given that it’s mostly the film’s way of setting up an adult-meets-kid action movie like “The Professional” or “Logan.” Those films were far better (because their scripts felt like more than diagrams). “The Mother,” as a Lopez vehicle, reminded me of nothing so much as Liam Neeson’s recent run of revenge potboilers. Yet there’s a way you can enjoy some of those films almost for their limitations; it’s all about pinning your entire investment on the karma of Neeson. “The Mother” was directed by Niki Caro, the New Zealand filmmaker who made the soulful and acclaimed “Whale Rider” 20 years ago, and Caro keeps the focus on the Lopez heroine’s obsession. She may not have seen her daughter for 12 years, but her connection to her is primal, and that’s what drives the action. She’s doing what she does because she has to.
The film leaps locations nearly as much as a nuclear-arms thriller, but once Lopez ambushes the palatial Cuban estate where Hector (Gabriel García Bernal), one of the two arms dealers, has lured her (their face-off, backdropped by church candles, is stylized enough to feel like something out of a “John Wick” film), she retrieves the endangered Zoe and takes her to the cabin, nestled in the snowy pine wilderness of Alaska, where she herself hid out for those 12 years. Paul Raci, the intensely compelling actor, all sinewy furrowed thought, who played the self-actualizing deaf halfway-house guru in “Sound of Metal” is Lopez’s old military comrade, and Joseph Fiennes is Adrian, the other arms dealer — a scarred psycho who will pursue Lopez to the ends of the earth. But she knows he’s coming. So she trains the tween Zoe in her survivalist techniques, which is a touch preposterous, but whatever.
The climax features Adrian coming at her with a dozen henchmen on snowmobiles, a sequence that brought me back, momentarily, to the ski chase in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” This one has no such majesty. It’s a lot of blam-blam, with the bodies picked off like video-game fodder. “The Mother” is watchable product, but Lopez proves that she can rousingly carry a picture like this one. The truth is, it doesn’t do her justice. Her character is by training a sniper, and at one point she has to pick off some villains by shooting into a crowd in a way that no world-class sniper would ever do. It made me think: Forget this slovenly, opportunistic action. What Lopez deserves to star in is a new-world remake of “The Day of the Jackal.”