- on Friday, 21 August 2015 16:36
- by Frank Wilkins
With a title even less appealing than its premise is original, American Ultra looks to mash together the stoner comedy with the sleeper cell thriller… as if The Bourne Identity were rewritten to star James Franco and Seth Rogen. Problem is, it’s not a very good representative of either genre with a couple of leads who fail at being funny while the hyper-violent action is never all that thrilling.
The movie genre mashup is a tough thing to pull off successfully, as is the blending of extreme violence with dark comedy. Attempting both techniques in the same film proves to be too much for both director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle), as their American Ultra is a mixed-up mess that shows moments of great promise but ultimately fails to be the kind of picture it hopes for.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg beneath a mop of stringy, unwashed hair) is a Cash & Carry store clerk in the dead-end town of Liman, West Virginia. When he’s not getting stoned or sketching in his never-to-be-published graphic novel about a superhero ape, Mike is thinking about how he’ll propose to his bail-bondsman girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) while the two are on vacation in Hawaii. Only they never get to make the trip due to the inexplicable panic attacks Mike experiences every time he tries to leave the city limits.
Unbeknownst even to himself, Mike is a deadly sleeper agent created years ago in a since-aborted CIA-run program that now wants him eliminated. We get no indication that Mike’s panic attacks are caused by his secret past, but like the numerous other unexplained loose ends, we assume that’s the case.
Regardless, Mike’s latent skills are activated by sympathizer and former handler, Agent Lassiter (Connie Britton) whose visit turns the mild-mannered slacker into a deadly killing machine who summons his go-to weaponry from any number of standard household items, whether dustpans, frying pans, light bulbs, or cups of chicken soup. His enemies are the goons of a current program head played by Topher Grace who is advancing his own personal agenda by eliminating all connections to the failed program.
Landis’ screenplay utilizes a puzzling structure that opens the film with what appears to be its ending as Mike, disheveled and wearing prison orange, is chained to a table in a police interrogation room. The film then rapidly rewinds back to the beginning, revealing quick snippets of scenes along the way. I won’t say spoilers were necessarily revealed during this flashback, but it does cause one to ponder the decision. There doesn’t appear to be a thematic or artistic reason this approach was employed, but enough of the film’s plot is revealed to replace much of the suspense with anticipation. It’s curious filmmaking decisions like these in American Ultra that create more of a distraction than added value.
Also, to the film’s detriment is Nourizadeh’s grasp for the low hanging, blood-soaked, shock-jock fruit rather than going for something a bit more clever. The violence is egregious, bloody, and so over the top it becomes clear they were going for the same dark humor that Tarantino has popularized during his career, but in their hands it comes off as gratuitous instead. There’s an underutilized subplot concerning Mike’s graphic novel that should have been better incorporated into the story’s main plot. It’s not until the closing credits that we experience more of Apollo Ape in a wonderful animated credit sequence.
The romantic edge played straight up by Stewart and Eisenberg is one of the film’s better successes as the two bring back some of the same wonderful chemistry they shared in the under-appreciated Adventureland. Seems that Stewart is regaining some of her early promise as she begins to slowly shed her Twilight skin. See last year’s Alice for further evidence.
American Ultra is a fast-paced exposition of missed opportunities and creative misfires, but it will never be accused of being boring. If extreme violence and semi-funny stoner humor are your thing, then by all means don’t miss it. It is highly deserving of its R rating.
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.
Runtime: 95 mins
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Writer: Max Landis
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton
Genre: Action | Comedy
Tagline: The ultimate secret agent becomes the ultimate target.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Something very weird is happening to me: I keep killing people! There's a chance I may be... a robot!."
Official Site: http://www.americanultrathemovie.com/#
Release Date: August 21, 2015
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: American Ultra is a fast-paced action comedy about Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), a seemingly hapless and unmotivated stoner whose small-town life with his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), is suddenly turned upside down. Unbeknownst to him, Mike is actually a highly trained, lethal sleeper agent. In the blink of an eye, as his secret past comes back to haunt him, Mike is thrust into the middle of a deadly government operation and is forced to summon his inner action-hero in order to survive.
No details available.