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AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) review

August 21, 2015

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written by: Max Landis
produced by: David Alpert, Anthony Bregman, Mark Fasano, Kevin Scott Frakes, Britton Rizzio & Raj Brinder Singh
directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content)
runtime: 96 min.
U.S. release date: August 21, 2014

 

“American Ultra” is definitely one of those movies where the less you know going in, the better off you’ll be. From the posters, it looks like another stoner comedy and that may be the draw for some. It’s not, though there are some laughs. It’s first and foremost an most unexpectedly bloody action movie that’s sprinkled with situational and reactionary comedy which often mostly works. Yes, it did get some chuckles out of me and I did find enough to like about the environment it offers, but overall I was just left thinking how “American Ultra” is one weird movie.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is an easy-going stoner living with his patient girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in  Liman, West Virginia. He runs a Cash-N-Carry mart in a strip mall where he sits and draws his creator-owned comic characters and she works as a clerk in a bail bonds office in their seemingly empty town. When we met the couple, the relationship status seems a bit strained, primarily due to Mike’s anxiety attacks which prevent him from leaving town (not just fear of flying, but fear of leaving his town’s vicinity), which cancels their scheduled Hawaiian vacation where Mike was planning on proposing to Phoebe. The tactless, well-meaning and consistently apologizing Mike admits he’s the one dragging down the relationship – she’s perfect/he’s effed up – that’s at least his perspective, which we hear in narration.  

 

 

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Then the camera zooms out – far into outer space where a satellite floats and then we realize there’s more going on here as we zoom back down and meet Lasseter (Connie Britton), a CIA agent who gets a mysterious call alerting her of sudden activity in Liman, West Virginia. A red flag goes off whenever a subject tries to leave town.  It turns out Mike was part of an experimental operation called “Wise Man” that programmed certain repeat offenders to be lethal weapons. It was thought to be a failure, but Mike is the sole survivor, only he doesn’t even know he can take two goons out using a spoon in a split-second – until he does.  

Not remembering any of his past, Mike panics, grabs Phoebe and they seek help from his drug dealer buddy, Rose (a hilarious John Leguizamo) as more goons close in on the pair. Mike’s pursuers are sent by an ambitious CIA dweeb named Yates (Topher Grace), who wants to eliminate Mike and anything that’s left of “Wise Man”. It’s never clear why exactly, except to maybe make a name for himself. His shadowy overseer, Krueger (Bill Pullman) isn’t impressed though. Yates is all hot air, intimidating middle man Petey (Tony Hale) and insulting Lasseter, (Mike’s former handler), which unleashing psychopathic killers (like an insane Walton Goggins) on Mike and Phoebe. Mike will have to channel his dormant skills in order to protect Phoebe from assassins honing in on them, but she may be able to handle herself just fine.

It’s easy to think of several other movies while watching “American Ultra”. It’s as if director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X“) took “The Bourne Identity”, “Pineapple Express” “The Cabin in the Woods” and “First Blood” and  mixed them all in a blender and then exploded them all over the kitchen, or in this case, the big screen. I got a kick out of the seeing Eisenberg and Stewart in a violent action dark comedy and they definitely seemed to be having fun with their roles.  It was good to see them reunite after 2009’s “Adventureland”, since they have such great chemistry together and although there are those out there who whine and complain about these two actors, I still find their choices very interesting  – especially Stewart lately.  Both actors get in on the action which really sells the idea of average twentysomethings being thrust into the fray. They show a genuine tenderness in their relationship, which kind of juxtaposes the insanity around them, yet grounds this crazy movie with a real world vibe.  

 

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Speaking of real world, one thing that surprised me about “American Ultra” was the setting, which is mostly in the sleepy town of Liman. Nourizadeh shot the movie all over Louisiana, even though it’s supposed to take place in West Virginia and Langley and there was a conscious decision to show rundown or lived-in factories and stores. It adds a nice touch of isolation and separation from the outside world. I especially liked a scene where Mike is meeting his buddy Rose in the empty parking lot of a strip club which has a sign that reads, “We fired the ugly one”.  The movie could’ve benefited from more clever touches like that.

Screenwriter Max Landis (“Chronicle“) nails the interaction between Eisenberg and Stewart and gives their relationship a real emotional connection with dialogue that feels natural. However, the other character aren’t so fortunate though, as they’re asked to portray characters who are either over-the-top (Grace) or just fall flat (Britton). Landis gives Goggins the only other interesting supporting character, one who in the end is more than just an unhinged quack, we actually feel a little sorry for him. Although Landis populates his screenplay with a few interesting characters, he lacks a threatening antagonist which winds up hurting the movie. It also didn’t help that there never seemed to be a purpose for the “Wise Man” program. Why did it exist and what use would these programmed killers have? Landis never touches on any of that.

“American Ultra” ends with a showdown at the Cash-N-Carry, where Mike utilizes his environment to his advantage, which is something we saw Denzel Washington do last year in “The Equalizer”.  There’s also an epilogue that feels way to Hollywood-ized and doesn’t tonally match the rest of the movie. Despite having some strong work from its two leads, this surreal movie is still one odd bird and I would be hard-pressed to recommend it the average moviegoer. But who knows? This could become a cult classic one day.  

 

 

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RATING: **

 

 

 

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