‘The Mother’ Review: Jennifer Lopez Is Mother in Niki Caro’s Slick Thriller

J. Lo holds her own as a sniper with a checkered past in this action-packed drama for Netflix, also starring Omari Hardwick and Gael Garcia Bernal.
THE MOTHER Omari Hardwick, Jennifer Lopez, 2023 Netflix
"The Mother"
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Jennifer Lopez may be singlehandedly able to revive the rom-com, but she’s here to remind us she can carry other blockbuster genres: The crime thriller. It’s been awhile since Lopez set her sights on a high-stakes action drama (as she did in Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 hit “Out of Sight”), but clearly she hasn’t forgotten her combat training. Deadly serious with a killer instinct, she is hardly maternal in “The Mother,” a tense thriller about a sharpshooter who must give up her child and go into hiding after double crossing two nefarious exes.

Directed by Kiwi filmmaker Niki Caro (“Whale Rider,” “Mulan”), “The Mother” sees two business-savvy women making a mark on the most masculine of genres — and pulling no punches. While it’s far from groundbreaking, “The Mother” is a satisfying nail-biter grounded in a genuine (albeit familiar) emotional setup. Besides, we’ve seen enough violent thrillers about lone wolf fathers protecting their children while the helpless wives sits at home. It’s high time the mothers came out to play — and much more realistic to boot.

Lopez’s character is never named in the film; her singleminded mission is defined by her sole identity being “Mother.” The action opens with a pregnant mother in custody with the FBI, where she warns her handler Cruise (Omari Hardwick) that the location is not secure. Ignoring her predictions, the facility is soon under siege from a mercenary group led by her former partner Adrian Lovell (Joseph Fiennes, firmly in his villain era). Luring her one-time lover into a bathroom, he stabs her pregnant belly before a makeshift firebomb surrounds them both in flames. As shower water rains down its protective bubble, the title credits roll.

Amazingly, the baby survives, but a tough love FBI agent (Edie Falco, who mysteriously never returns) lays out the hard truth that the only way to protect the child is to terminate her parental rights and put the baby in witness protection. After saving his life in the gunfight, she makes Cruise promise they will find a nice family, and to contact her at the first sign of trouble. Twelve years later, and our thick-skinned heroine is donning deerskin and hunting elk somewhere remote and snowy, her only contact a weathered local named Jons (Paul Raci) who runs the supply shop. When her annual birthday photo from Cruise arrives too early, alarm bells sound.

THE MOTHER, from left: Jennifer Lopez, Lucy Paez, 2023. ph: Doane Gregory / © Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
“The Mother”©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Inventing a fake line-up as a reason to bring her in, Cruise informs her that her daughter’s cover has been blown and she may be in danger. For the first time, she learns her name is Zoe (Lucy Paez) and sets sights on her in the wild. While scoping her out from a safe remove, she happens to witness an abduction in real time, but even she can’t act fast enough to save Zoe from being taken. After an impressive shootout that sees her punching through a rusted-out truck bed to climb into the carriage, she and Cruise hatch a plan to get Zoe back. Adopting aliases, they head to Cuba in search of her other ex-partner, the thinly-sketched but still sketchy Hector Alvarez (Gael Garcia Bernal).

It’s a lot of action with not many surprises, but the sharply staged blowouts and chemistry with Cruise add a nice momentum to the predictable proceedings. Doling out her checkered back story in various flashbacks, we learn that Adrian recruited her to work for him during her military training, introducing her to Hector in the meantime.

Both men operate by the missive that “powerful people want things that are not on the menu,” and she turns against them both after finding a shipping container full of children amongst the contraband. Though the details are glossed over, it’s clear that she was at one point sleeping with both Hector and Adrian. When Cruise tries to ascertain which man might be most motivated to find Zoe, she replies: “She’s not Hector’s, and she’s not Adrian’s. She’s mine.”

It’s a hell of a lot of setup to get what becomes the real meat of the drama: The time she spends with Zoe back in her remote woodsy cabin. Determined to teach Zoe to protect herself, Mother runs a tight training regimen of target practice, hand to hand combat, and wilderness survival. A wolf mother and her pack of cubs may be a heavy-handed metaphor, but it gets the job done (and it’s a pretty impressive feat of animal handling.) Though her inability to connect with Zoe emotionally doesn’t quite pack the dramatic punch the film needs, the lull in the tension is well-paced within the narrative, and the culminating action scene delivers on the requisite thrills. It’s not quite a Bond movie, but some very agile snowmobile drivers keep things exciting.

Some well-placed needle drops feature fittingly eclectic artists, including Maluma, Grimes, Maxwell, and Portishead, and do a lot to further the movie’s claim as a stylish woman’s riff on a macho genre. As she did the with live-action “Mulan,” Caro proves herself adept at staging large-scale action scenes with intriguing creative flourishes. Sure, the writing contains some groan-worthy cliches, like when mother asserts that not feeling is “the only way to survive,” but they are far less offensive than in your average action thriller. If they can look past their own internal biases, “The Mother” should satisfy even the most diehard action fans, while leaving the door to some new ones.

Grade: B

“The Mother” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, May 12.

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