If you were to hear there's a new street-crime revenge thriller that pairs a grown-up recent Oscar nominee/beloved TV star with Jennifer Lopez, you would probably respond, "This must be January" and "Even if it's terrible, that movie will make serious money." But the lead this time is not Liam Neeson. It's Viola Davis, who proves commanding when she trains a revolver on a drug dealer and barks questions. The movie, directed by Charles Stone III — who gave us 2002's likable Drumline — runs hot and cold, suspenseful and well observed, well acted and often affecting, but somewhat tiresome and implausible by the end. Yet Davis is a star, and Lopez almost single-handedly made The Boy Next Door a serious hit this winter. So why is Lila & Eve receiving only a nominal release? American theaters have welcomed four movies like this starring Neeson in the past two years — Davis can't get one?
Lila & Eve's fate seems set by Hollywood's deep reluctance to invest in films centered on women in general and women of color in particular. As always, the studios and distributors seem to take as truth the notion that stories of characters who aren't white dudes are too niche to connect with audiences. That belief presumes that nonwhite audiences have no economic power, that white folks can't invest in anyone else's experience, that the success of Davis' How to Get Away With Murder is some irreproducible fluke.
None of that is to say that Lila & Eve is Taken: Now With Moms. It's an actors' piece rather than an action flick, and Davis finds new, moving nuance in the film's familiar beats. There's terrific warmth in an early scene in which she celebrates a son's birthday, and Stone and his production team are scrupulous at establishing socioeconomic specifics: This family can afford videogames and a secondhand laptop, but those are as much sacrifice as luxury. Later, after her son is gunned down in the streets, Davis' character, Lila, seeks out a support group for mothers who have lost their children; there she meets Lopez's Eve. Lila's nervousness, her reluctance to share her pain, is moving on its own, but it also shades her later toughness. Her eyes harden when she threatens to blow away the drug-runners who shattered her family, but her vengeance is fueled by pain rather than satisfaction. Unlike so many Hollywood punishers, her loss never feels like it's just her excuse to kill. Perhaps to that end, Stone doesn't present the impending killings as moments to cheer, and he and Davis never indulge in the Hollywood lie that violence in the world helps achieve peace in the heart. Each shot she fires takes a toll — and inspires terrible complications.
Davis plays a person rather than a fantasy hardass. Lopez's Eve has to goad her into tracking down the culprits — Lila & Eve acknowledges that the impulse to kill every bastard in the room is not natural. The film's mood is brooding, but its stars share a pair of lively scenes of bonding: On a stakeout, they sing together, and when their investigation points to a nightclub, the pleasures of doing themselves up buoys both them and the film.
Lopez plays unglamorous, the camera never once leering at her — possibly a first for one of her movies. We learn little of Eve's life outside the support group, as she fulfills the role of Lila's bad-angel conscience, encouraging more gunplay. Unfortunately, to set up a surprise, Lopez's character has to be vaguely drawn, which is a disservice to the actress.
Davis faces no such limitations. When Lila's quest results in the death of a young man that the movies usually would just consider a bad guy, she cries out, "He's somebody's child!" You know how the sound designers on PG-13 adventures dub in a comic Wilhelm scream when some mook gets knocked off the ledge of a space castle? We might be healthier as a society if instead they gave us Davis' heartsick lament: Even orcs are somebody's child.