American Ultra, 2015.
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins and Bill Pullman.
A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.
American Ultra opens up chronicling the entire movie with a reverse time-lapse that seemingly promises a chaotic bloodbath of craziness. It raises hopes of impressive action sequence choreography set in various locales and an imaginative ride in a world where a stoner (Jesse Eisenberg) unbeknownst to himself is a hand-to-hand combat machine that for reasons unknown must be terminated by the CIA. The movie unfortunately can’t wholly deliver on these promises but meets audiences halfway.
The romantic relationship between Mike and his likewise pothead girlfriend Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart because let’s be honest, she always looks baked out of her mind reminiscent to a deer in the headlights) works thanks to great on-screen chemistry between the two. As Mike puts it, they’re the most fucked up couple on the planet, and the robotic dry humor mixed alongside his awkward tonal delivery makes Jesse Eisenberg a clear match for the empty-headedness airhead aura of Kristen Stewart. And that isn’t an attack on Kristen Stewart, but rather an observation that this is on-point casting, even when she is partaking in the violence. As an actress she has come a long way from her agonizingly bad performances in Twilight (see independent movies like Camp X-Ray for further proof) and she should be commended for it, even though the compliments are somewhat backhanded.
Topher Grace is also here portraying the desk-jockey-given-a-promotion villain that is a straight up jerk to his acquaintances and coworkers, and he is clearly living up the opportunity to chew apart scenery. Even if a great portion of his dialogue feels lazily written to overuse the F-word as a method of sounding threatening, or hurling misogynistic insults at women to gain instant bad guy credibility, he’s clearly having fun and a delight to watch.
The problem with American Ultra is that as good as these performances are, everything all feels wasted thanks to a plot that refuses to only brush over backstory instead of offering history and explanations, while simultaneously suffering from a lack of direction on what to do with certain characters. Make no mistake about it, Topher Grace steals every scene he is in, but we have no motivation for what he is doing besides an experiment (that never really gets explained as to what it was) went wrong and now he has to clean up the mess. There’s also the frustratingly disappointing development that he doesn’t even meet his demise at the hands of one of our stoned protagonists. There is no satisfaction to the resolution of his character, all because the movie decides to formally introduce a character for essentially no reason. It’s horrible storytelling.
Admittedly, no one will be heading into American Ultra for the narrative but rather its hyper-violent shootouts, hand-to-hand combat, and excessive CGI blood. It’s all another mixed bag; there are some frenetic fight scenes that work (a somewhat lengthy tracking shot of Mike straight up eliminating henchmen one by one with brutal physicality and blunt weapons) while some fall flat (a sequence set in an ultraviolet lit basement that could have made for one psychedelic trip of mayhem, but instead one enemy is killed there and the movie progresses).
Still, the punk rock vibe and rebellious nature to the action is satisfying. It’s hard to deny that you’re watching something incredibly stylish that packs an awe factor in the moment, even if the experience as a package is largely forgettable. Often edited together haphazardly, the shootouts feel far too disoriented to get engaged in, but brief moments of Mike stabbing someone in the neck with a spoon or deflecting a bullet off of a frying pan make for great reminders of why you initially decided to see American Ultra.
The movie is just hard to give a solid recommendation because the direction leaves you indifferent to almost everything occurring. Falling into tropes doesn’t help either; the twist is fairly obvious and if avoided, would have made for an infinitely more entertaining movie that also gives Kristen Stewart more on-screen action. Some scenes are also tied together incredibly awkwardly; towards the end of the movie, three characters go from the site of the final battle to a forest with very little explaining the transition. It almost feels as if scenes were cut from the movie to increase the smoothness of the flow, but instead everything backfired.
The cobbled together cast of Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Topher Grace yield great results in a movie with spades of humor and gratuitous violence, but they simply can’t save flawed writing and direction. You want to have fun watching America Ultra, but it’s tough to ignore just how incompetently helmed it is and how much better it could have been. Even the violence lacks creativity, and simply revolves around disposable soldiers getting whacked with traumatic force simply so buckets of CGI blood can distract the audience into thinking that this movie is as awesome as it thinks it is. Instead, American Ultra is an interesting idea with failed execution.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook