SAN ANTONIO — “This place isn’t secure,” a sullen Jennifer Lopez whispers to the FBI agents interrogating her in the opening of Netflix’s misshapen action-drama “The Mother.” This being Lopez – who, as we’ll come to see, does just enough as a character credited only as the Mother to sell the burden of maternal protection as convincingly as simmering rage – we brace ourselves for the interruption to come.
Surprise, surprise: It takes just a few moments for a death squad commanded by Joseph Fiennes’s international arms dealer (and the Mother’s former lover) to bust into the not-so-safe safehouse, easily dispatching the agents inside under the dark cover of night, though that murkiness might just be the movie. The Mother manages to make it out alive; among the many important things we’ll learn about her in this first scene is that she’s resourceful, she’s merciless and she’s pregnant. Her instincts sent up the red flag that this meeting spot wasn’t as secure as it thought.
Neither, it turns out, is “The Mother.” The first project from New Zealand director Niki Caro since her pandemic-era “Mulan” passed through the cultural consciousness as swiftly as a coursing river, it’s destined to leave an impression of indecision over what it wants to be. All the haphazard jumping forward and flashing back in time “The Mother” does to tell a story about a woman desperately holding onto whatever moral code she has left – at first by living alone in the wilderness to protect her now-12-year-old daughter, then by rushing in guns-blazing to save her – amounts to a sparse knockoff featuring a few inventive moments (a clever parking garage escape stands out, however fleeting it is) amid big issues so numerous that you can only laugh at the smaller ones. It’s hard to feel the dramatic bite of an explosive highway ambush, for instance, when The Mother manages to commute calmly past the parade of police cruisers responding to the chaos.
The film’s overcompromising script brings together three writers with major-league cache – including Peter Craig (“Top Gun: Maverick”) and Misha Green (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Lovecraft Country”) – who can’t square the story’s scope with the emotional compromises J-Lo tries to sell through steely stares and ice-cold fury. Sorely in need of simplification, it instead breaks a sweat stuffing a miniseries’ worth of elements – gritty action, frosty trauma, criminal conspiracies, familial mystery, rough-hewn salvation story – into a convoluted two hours. The result is a forgettable grab-bag that further loses its center the more it goes digging around for genre elements to deploy; you might as well skip to minute 90 and get your at-home action fix with a climactic set piece that sees “The Mother” ending on its biggest burst of competence (or at least well-lit, nicely-staged action).
Its momentum stagnates more often than it soars, Caro seemingly caught between Netflix’s priorities of churning out original films every week and her own instincts for what this movie with compelling individual pieces needs in order to fit them snugly together. Originality can only go so far for “The Mother” when wisps of better movies are more visible than its own intentions. It ends up trading sleek and somber like an assassin loading the wrong ammo into their gun.
"The Mother" is rated R for violence, some language and brief drug use. It releases on Netflix on Friday. Runtime: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Lucy Paez, Omari Hardwick, Joseph Fiennes
Directed by Niki Caro; written by Misha Green, Peter Craig, Andrea Berloff