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Not that Kind of Mother



THE MOTHER. Now that the Mother's Day brunch dishes have been cleared, the bath bombs dissolved and hug coupons redeemed, let's talk action movie motherhood. Wives and children are a civilizing force on action movie men, who put aside the weapons of war for family. Well, at least until someone kidnaps or murders said objects of affection or, in the case of John Wick, their pet proxies. Violence is depicted as an aspect of manhood that must be channeled to preserve peace, though Mr. Hyde does peek through now and again, as in Nobody (2021).

But in deference to the palates of moviegoers and studio heads, mothers typically only get bloody when on a mission to protect their children. A good mama bear, after all, can be forgiven a little mauling in service of her cubs, like Halle Berry's extended chase movie Kidnap (2017). But violence outside those parameters is seen as antithetical to motherhood. (At least it was before women found themselves shouldering childcare, schooling and jobs during the pandemic — we'll see what fruit that collective rage bears over the next couple of years at the movies.)

The game changed when Linda Hamilton did her first bedframe chin-up in Terminator 2 (1991), as hyper-focused Sarah Connor, whose intensity and deltoids didn't fit the mold of loving movie mothers. Geena Davis is equally rough around the edges as a mom/amnesiac hitwoman in The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996), whereas Veronica Ngo in the frantic Furie (2019) is both closer to the John Wick model of dormant killer and utterly relatable in her flailing as a mother. (Both are fine examples of the genre but only Ngo wails on a guy with a spiky durian fruit.) But The Mother's closest kin may be Allison Janney's surprisingly hardcore action heroine turn in Lou (2022). There, Janney's grumpy old lady/retired spy goes all out to rescue her neighbor's little girl without softening. Instead, she convincingly barks, "Some people weren't meant to be mothers." Therein lies the interest of The Mother, what gives its star Jennifer Lopez something to work with other than straight action.

A dozen years ago, our nameless heroine (Lopez), once an elite Army sniper, entered a personal and professional triangle with a pair of international arms-dealing monsters, against whom she is brokering a deal with the FBI. When their safehouse is attacked, the deal dissolves and she's strong-armed into surrendering any parental rights to the daughter she's just given birth to in hopes of keeping the child safe. However, the semi-sympathetic Agent Cruise (Omari Hardwick) agrees to keep watch on the child and alert her mother if the bad guys show up. By the time that shoe drops, Lopez's character has relocated deep in the woods of Alaska, where she's hunting caribou, keeping the wolf population at bay and, by all appearances, still getting regular blowouts. Soon, she's watching over her biological daughter Zoe (Lucy Paez) through a rifle scope, nearly but not quite averting the inevitable kidnapping. From there, she and Cruise pack up the guns to head to Cuba to do some light waterboarding, and track down and rescue Zoe, despite the also inevitable trap that awaits them.

Lopez first entered the ring of fighting moms in Enough (2002), but the ante for hand-to-hand fight choreography has gone up in the last two decades. Contemporaries Berry and Charlize Theron have taken their training to new heights in the intervening years, to say nothing of 60-year-old Michelle Yeoh. This is not to pit the ladies against one another, but to note the rising expectations of the action obsessed. (Yes, I refer here to vacationing columnist John Bennett and myself, likely the only nerds genuinely concerned.) The few close fights in The Mother are serviceable, though some of the stunts are edited clunkily, revealing too much of the illusion and the admirable work of the stuntpeople. Still, it's impossible not to enjoy Lopez glaring at and picking off henchmen with the same cool she wielded in Out of Sight (1998).

Lopez's charisma and presence carry the movie over its plot holes, sometimes pat dialogue and odd pacing. And she's able to convey more than the script is giving her as a woman whose only available expressions of maternal love are distance, violence and a kind of mother-daughter survivalist bootcamp. Perhaps this isn't the script to risk it for but something is lost by maintaining her beauty. True, nobody has worked a parka like this since Angelina Jolie was raiding tombs and I predict the return of cargo pants and racerback tank tops as a direct result of this movie. But it's impossible to forget that she's a movie star, not a woman who's been trapping rabbits in Alaska for a decade.

Director Niki Caro goes for some wild shots, like the juxtaposition of a tossed wedding bouquet and a man sent airborne by the front end of a car, or the on-the-nose shot of a pregnant Lopez in a wet hoodie like the Madonna. You don't cue up a JLo action movie because you want something low key, but as entertaining as The Mother is when it gets going, its seams show where its star could have shone more brightly with some rougher edges. R. 115M. NETFLIX.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.

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