Make no mistake, the title character in the enjoyably ridiculous The Mother is given no name, but there’s never any doubt that she’s Jennifer Lopez. From the runway-ready fur hoodie she sports in the Alaskan wilderness to the flawless eye makeup and dewy complexion that withstand everything from childbirth to a knife fight in the snowbound woods, this is a performance so loaded with celebrity baggage it’s never going to be fully convincing as a deadly assassin. Yet JLo of course is the chief reason to watch Niki Caro’s action thriller for Netflix, which is better than average, as star-driven streaming features go.
New Zealander Caro got unlucky with her live-action Mulan remake, when its 2020 theatrical release was delayed and eventually scuttled by the pandemic, leaving the epic’s spectacular visuals to be diminished on Disney+. This latest feature from the director who broke out in 2002 with Whale Rider is the kind of thriller that was a mid-budget studio staple up until a decade or so ago. It now seems a good fit for streaming, generating enough tension and character involvement to be more than background noise.
The Bottom Line
Lopez is in intense, stoical tough-gal mode as an Armed Services veteran whose crack sniper skills made her the best in her platoon, notching up 46 confirmed kills during back-to-back tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. We learn this through Edie Falco, in a cameo as an FBI special agent who helpfully recaps the protagonist’s military history for her — but really for us.
A prologue in an FBI safehouse in Indiana has “the mother” still in her expectant phase, warning her interrogators that she’s not safe just in time for a rain of bullets to come down on them. She manages to save the hotter of the two agents, William Cruise (Omari Hardwick), before facing off against her arms-dealer associate and former lover, Adrian Lovell (Joseph Fiennes), who stabs her in her pregnant belly before a hastily rigged explosive device sends him up in flames. Which makes Adrian an angry dude with a melted pizza face for the rest of the movie.
The limited employment options awaiting the protagonist after service helped lure her into criminal activity, first with Adrian and then with his equally shady associate Hector Alvarez (Gael García Bernal), with whom she also had a relationship. Her pivot to become an FBI informant didn’t go down well with either of them.
When her baby miraculously survives the opening assault, the mother is briskly informed that the only way to protect the girl from what will surely be ongoing pursuit by the pair of killers is to terminate parental rights and give the kid a new identity and a new family. She reluctantly agrees, extracting a promise from the indebted Cruise to provide the child with “the most boring, stable life there is,” and to send a photo every year on the girl’s birthday.
Twelve years after the protagonist has retreated to an isolated woodland cabin in Alaska, she’s summoned by Cruise back to Cincinnati, where her daughter, Zoe (Lucy Paez), lives a comfortable life with her parents. When Hector’s top lieutenants descend on a playground, the mother manages to pick most of them off with an assault rifle, but Zoe nonetheless gets snatched and whisked off to Cuba by a creep helpfully identified by the tattoo on his neck as “The Tarantula” (Jesse Garcia).
The change of scenery (Canary Islands locations stand in for Havana) lets some color and light into the film, a welcome shift given how gloomy and noirish everything is up to that point — even if it’s a hospital ward or a kid’s bedroom combed by Federal agents.
There’s also a feverish chase through the streets and across the rooftops of the old town that makes good use of DP Ben Seresin’s action credentials and the skills Caro honed on elaborately choreographed battle sequences in Mulan. In an amusing touch, they crash into a wedding party, where the bridal bouquet and the Tarantula go flying at the same moment.
A hint of potential romance with Cruise creeps into the story, along with another big exposition dump. But it’s not long before the mother confronts her former secondary squeeze, Hector, in his heavily guarded castle. Like all regulation Latino villains, sleazy Hector favors living quarters overflowing with burning candles, so you can guess how that ends.
Meanwhile, questions about Zoe’s father are left hanging. But the girl’s instincts are sharp enough to make her realize who her biological mother is once they head back to Ohio. Naturally, that doesn’t go according to plan, leaving the mother no choice but to hurry Zoe off to Alaska for her safety, inevitably leading to a grisly faceoff in the final act, with bad guys zooming across the landscape on snowmobiles.
Caro steers the star vehicle more than capably, even if she takes Misha Green, Andrea Berloff and Peter Craig’s silly script a tad too seriously, keeping the mood dark and ominous by sprinkling trippy tracks from artists like Massive Attack, Portishead and Grimes. The mother’s path into crime is too sketchily explained to be credible and her eventual exposure of the beating heart beneath her hardened armor will surprise no one. Likewise, the expediency and efficiency of her training course to equip Zoe with handy survival skills. A wary kinship between the mother and a majestic wolf, ferociously protective of her pups, hits like a symbolic anvil.
Of course, no one takes all this more seriously than Lopez, who seethes and smolders and exudes hard-bodied, bad-ass attitude in ways her fans will adore. This mother is a dab hand with guns, knives, home-made explosives, fists and feet, yet blissfully, she never relinquishes her glam bona fides, even when she splits her head open on a rock and lets her hair get a bit ratty. A gratuitous butt shot, poured into a skintight dress on a dancefloor with Fiennes’ Adrian, screams, “Yeah, not bad for 53, amiright?”
Still, I’ll take this JLo as “nobody fucks with me or my daughter” killing machine, discovering her long-hidden maternal instincts, over those grimly generic rom-coms she cranks out once a year, which might as well be direct-to-inflight movies. This action detour is at least an improvement over the 2015 howler, Lila & Eve, in which she and Viola Davis teamed up as vigilante moms.
There are other people in The Mother, but this project from Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions banner is so assiduously molded around its leading lady that they scarcely matter. Paez, in her first major role, makes a favorable impression, extending Caro’s interest in women taking charge of their own fates. Even Zoe’s adoptive mother (Yvonne Senat Jones) does all the talking, her husband relegated to the sidelines.
The guys, both good and bad, get the job done but mostly are hauled along in the star’s wake, with particularly inadequate use made of Bernal and Paul Raci as the mother’s old military buddy, keeping an eye out for her in Alaska. Nobody seems to have missed the memo that this is The JLo Show.
While an argument could be made for Hustlers as the rare recent exception, the days of Selena, Out of Sight and even Anaconda, before the star persona had completely taken hold and Lopez could still nestle into an actual character, are long gone, for better or worse.