If you were to hear that there's a new street-crime revenge thriller that pairs up a grown-up recent Oscar nominee/beloved TV star with Jennifer Lopez, you would probably respond, "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. But Davis is a star, and Lopez almost singlehandedly 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 last two years — Davis can't get one?
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. After her son is gunned down in the streets, Davis's character, Lila, seeks out a support group for mothers who have lost their children; there she meets Lopez's Eve, who goads her into action. 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.