Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Tony Hale, Bill Pullman
MPAA Rating: (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 8/21/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 20, 2015
It's difficult to discern what American Ultra is trying to do, even though it might appear obvious. It's an action movie, of course, filled with plenty of bloody and gruesome killings. It's also something of a comedy about a lazy but good-hearted stoner who gets caught up in a government conspiracy beyond his control, although the movie's defects on the comic level might have something to do with its aforementioned purpose. The movie wants to be simultaneously hard-edged and light on its feet—dark and cynical while embracing an attitude of happy-go-lucky absurdity.
It's the kind of movie that wants us to be shocked by the violence but laugh at the zaniness of the hero brutally dispatching an enemy with a dustpan (enough so that the movie's final joke is a cut to one), if that dichotomy makes any sense. It likely won't and probably shouldn't, and that's the problem. The movie is too aggressive and bleak to be that funny, but it's also too cheerfully arch to strike a genuinely pessimistic chord.
The story is a vaguely familiar one. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a ne'er-do-well with a dead-end job at a convenience store, a crippling anxiety disorder, a multiple-joints-per-day drug habit, and a ridiculously patient girlfriend named Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). The two are supposed to take a trip to Hawaii, where Mike plans to propose to Phoebe, but instead, the guy ends up holed up in the airport bathroom with his leg shaking and the contents of his stomach coming out of his mouth.
Phoebe is understandably upset, but she consoles Mike that it's not his fault. Surely things won't always be like this. One day, he'll be able to leave the town Liman, West Virginia. Mike decides that he'll still propose to Phoebe when the right time shows itself, although he's also worried that he's stopping her from living up to her full potential. There's an amusing and surprisingly sweet scene in which a stoned Mike philosophizes at the sight of a car that has crashed into a tree—imagining himself as the tree in a constant state of being stopped and her as the car.
The planned trip, apparently (The movie is a bit fuzzy on this detail, in addition to plenty of others, but it's not too important), catches the attention of the CIA. At the agency's headquarters, Victoria Lassester (Connie Britton) receives a cryptic call from a mysterious phone locked away in a drawer. Mike, it turns out, was an experimental subject in a secretive government program, which Lasseter oversaw, called the "Wise Men," and her smarmy supervisor Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to eliminate Mike using assets from the rival "Tough Guys" program. Lassester visits Mike and "activates" him.
We get the usual series of confrontations—between Mike and the trained killers—and revelations—such as Phoebe's actual role in his life and the appearance of the shadowy Krueger (Bill Pullman), who appears late in the movie to summarize what has happened and clean up the mess. Everything comes across as half-baked, though, once the plot kicks into gear. The Tough Guys have codenames like Crane (Monique Ganderton) and Laugher (Walton Goggins), but aside from the latter of those two (whose moniker comes from his tendency to offer an insane laugh at the prospect of violence), these characters are simply fodder for Mike's killing skills, which have come out of hibernation.
Every character here is just a sketch (The performances are, admittedly, effective on that level), and that might be fine if either the action or comedy elements here worked better. There are occasional moments of inspiration within the resulting carnage, such as a moment in which Mike uses a frying pan to ricochet a bullet (Director Nima Nourizadeh clearly knows this bit is clever, somewhat ruining the gag by dragging out the setup with slow-motion). Otherwise, the action sequences are visual assaults of quick cuts and plenty of flowing blood, with the sporadic "humor" of Mike's usage of an everyday object to tear apart his foes (The climax is set in a store, where there are plenty of such items at his disposal).
Thankfully, the movie doesn't stoop to a mean-spirited or nihilistic level, and that's because Eisenberg is effective as an affable, neurotically bumbling hero who can't help his outbursts of ultra-violence (After killing two henchmen, he tells Phoebe he can't call the cops because he's "the killer guy"). Also, Max Landis' screenplay keeps things slightly grounded with the scenes between Mike and Phoebe, and when it isn't resorting to a barrage of stylistic tomfoolery to accentuate the callousness of the violence, the movie offers some appropriately glum imagery (via Michael Bonvillain's cinematography) to complement Mike's road-to-nowhere life.
These are, though, relatively small factors in the bigger scheme of what the movie is trying to do—again, whatever that might be. Tone is vital, and American Ultra offers two conflicting ones without a means to reconcile them.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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