2015, R, 96 mins.
2015, R, 96 mins.
Kristen Stewart as Phoebe / Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell / Topher Grace as Adrian Yates / Tony Hale as Agent Petey Douglas / John Leguizamo as Rose / Walton Goggins as Laugher / Connie Britton as Victoria Lasseter / Bill Pullman as Krueger
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh / Written by Max Landis
AMERICAN ULTRA is a movie that’s simultaneously trying to be multiple movies.
divergent tones and genres presented here coalesce relatively well, but
other times the film can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a Jason
Bourne-esque espionage flick, an action adventure film, a B-grade
grindhouse exploitation thriller, a love story, a stoner/slacker comedy of
errors…or all of these very things.
There’s no doubt that Max Landis’ (writer of CHRONICLE)
screenplay has a jubilant appetite to entertain us by literally
throwing everything but the kitchen sink, so to speak, at the screen.
You can sense his enthusiasm for the underlining premise in
AMERICAN ULTRA, but what’s lacking, I think, is some screenwriting
The film begins
modestly enough…that is until the ape shit lunacy of the story’s
subsequent acts kick into overdrive.
Jesse Eisenberg stars a Mike Howell, a quintessential small town
loser that spends most of his days scribbling comic book characters in his
notepads, working behind a register at a nearby Cash ‘n’ Carry
convenience store (one so dilapidated and low-rent that no one ever
appears to shop there), and culminates his evenings by getting high off of
weed with his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Eisenberg’s ADVENTURELAND
co-star Kristin Stewart). Despite
the fact that Mike, for what it’s worth, is on a slow burn downward
spiral with no real career or life plan in place, Phoebe
still unconditionally loves the lug…even after he has a serious panic
attack that prevents him from boarding an airplane with her on a long
awaited trip to Hawaii. Prospects for this dude’s future are grim, but somehow…he
and Phoebe seem like an inseparable pair with a future together.
Fate, of course,
steps in for Mike in a truly profound manner one night at the convenience
store. A strange woman in
sunglasses and a trenchcoat appears (Connie Britton) walks up to his
counter and speaks what sounds like military call-sign gobbledygook.
She repeats the same seemingly indecipherable mantra multiple times
to Mike, which he casually brushes off as the rants of a deranged
customer. Later on during that same evening Mike discovers two shadowy
figures huddled outside the store tampering with his car.
The men are armed and quickly attack Mike after he verbally
confronts them…but Mike manages to instantly and easily kill both men
with the spoon he was using to eat his Cup O’ Noodles.
Just what the hell is going on here?
Now, clearly Mike
– as far as his outward appearance and demeanor are concerned – is not
a lethal killer that could rival any limitlessly dexterous super spy in
the world. Yet, how was he
able to systematically eradicate these assailants so simply and with such
Well, it appears that Mike has been an unwitting subject of a top
secret CIA project to train ordinary young men to become extremely effective
assassins on subliminal cue. Most of the test subjects failed, whereas Mike – unknown to
him, seeing as he has a form of amnesia from ever remembering his covert
training – is actually one that succeeded.
The woman that “activated” him in the convenience store,
Victoria, is actually Mike’s handler and hopes to protect him from
governmental forces that now see him as a violent and unstable threat that
must be taken out. CIA
midlevel manager Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) leads the charge to find and
eliminate Mike as quickly as possible, but seeing as Mike can be triggered
to respond with an inordinate amount of deadly force at anytime to protect
himself and his loved ones, apprehending him proves to be difficult for
the increasingly agitated Yates.
advertising campaign (which, by the way, dished out on much of the
particulars of the plot that I just described, which makes my relaying of it
non-spoilery), AMERICAN ULTRA is not the goofy and rambunctious stoner
fuelled action comedy that I was expecting. That’s kind of a compliment.
The film is a bit more grounded and sincere with its characters
from the outset. Unfortunately,
the film spends a bit too much time perhaps on introductions, which leads
to a somewhat lethargic first act. However,
when AMERICAN ULTRA opens up and vastly accelerates its pacing in terms of
showcasing some breakneck, bone crunching, and artery spewing carnage
(it's remarkably and surprisingly gory) then the overall film feels like
it has been jumpstarted. Director
Nima Nourizadeh (PROJECT X) imbues the
film with a hyper kinetic visual style that’s not too overpoweringly
aggressive on the senses, but nevertheless gives AMERICAN ULTRA a
much-needed propulsive edge. He
displays great aptitude in handling many of the viscerally charged action
sequences while getting positively playful with color and design in
quieter moments (a detour for Mike and Phoebe in the black lighted
exercise room of their drug dealing friend – played by John Lequizamo
– is a prime example of the film’s hallucinatory visual style at
in AMERICAN ULTRA are also thanklessly decent, which is no easy task
considering the sheer craziness that transpires around these characters.
Eisenberg and Stewart display the same sort of unforced repartee
and chemistry that they evoked previously in ADVENTURELAND; they feel like
a credible, relatable and likeable pair of lovers, and I especially liked
the off kiltered casting of Eisenberg, perhaps not everyone’s idea of
front-lining leading man/action film. Britton,
an underrated actress, brings a level of earnest toughness and empowerment
to her governmental agent that may or may not be in over her head.
Topher Grace overplays and hams it up to, some would say,
potentially distracting levels here, but there’s no questioning his
innately strong abilities for playing sniveling and unnerving weasels
with the best of them. He’s
the kind of loathsome antagonist that you want to see get ultimate
comeuppance from the heroes…and in as bloody of a manner as possible;
Grace makes it very easy to detest him in the film.
Ultimately, though, AMERICAN ULTRA is just too hyper caffeinated for its own good while attempting to be too many things at once. The film contains an obviously clever and unique premise, but it seems to miss real opportunities at fully exploring it while maintaining overall tonal cohesion. Too much of AMERICAN ULTRA feels uneven and half baked (stoner pun unintended) and, for the most part, very little effort is made at satirizing and/or mocking the conventions of the spy films it's emulating throughout its sparse 96 minutes. Equally exacerbating is a would-be shocking plot twist that can be seen from a proverbial mile away, not to mention an ending that feels a bit too conventionally laid out considering the unconventionality of the entire film’s narrative. AMERICAN ULTRA is slickly packaged, snappily paced, subversively funny and intensely action packed at times, but it’s also somewhat hollow and lacks a clear-cut identity and game plan.