American Ultra (dir. Nima Nourizadeh)

Posted: September 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

I’m not sure what the point of “American Ultra” is.  It has too much drama for a comedy, too much gory action for a drama, and while it apes the premise of the “The Bourne Identity” and the director of that film’s last name, Liman, for the town in which this film takes place, it’s not a satire.  The beginning of the film feels like an indie relationship drama about two lower-class West Virginia pot heads, and a rather good one and potentially moving one at that.  Our two leads, Jessie Eisenberg and Kristin Stewart, once costarred together in “Adventureland” one of the best films of 2009 and a film you should absolutely see if you haven’t already, and they have remarkable chemistry together.  Despite having some pot, this isn’t a pot comedy the way that “Pineapple Express” was.  I honestly have no idea how exactly to classify this thing, other than that it’s a genre mash-up with a greatly shifting tone that more-or-less works as entertainment but feels like it had grander ambitions which do not at all come across.  It’s also unrealistic and cynical as fuck about how the CIA works.

Eisenberg plays Mike, a loser pothead with an anxiety disorder that causes him panic attacks if he attempts to leave the small town he resides in.  He works at a convenience story and lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart), who is very understanding about Mike’s issues. Mike wants to propose to Phoebe but can’t find the right time. This is greatly hindered when a CIA agent (Connie Britton) says some weird words to him, and as people inexplicable try to kill Mike, he suddenly has some really good skills in unarmed combat, found-object combat (for lack of a better term), memory retention, and other skills.  The previews for this film already reveal that Mike was programmed by the CIA to be an agent (or an assassin, or something) and he’s activated when another agent (Topher Grace, playing a smarmy, spineless bureaucrat really well) who wants him eliminated. Why? The film never really gives us an adequate explanation, other than that Grace’s character launched a similar program and wants to eliminate Mike, the one success from the original program, which was launched by Britton’s character.  The original program used people who signed up for it when facing their Third Strike (mandatory minimums are a bitch), whereas Grace’s character is using mental patients.  This has got to be the dumbest government program since “The Men Who Stare at Goats”.  Why would the CIA recruit low level drug offenders and mental patients when I’m sure there are hundreds of Chris Kyle-wannabes who would readily sign themselves away to their country for the chance to be a super-assassin?  I guess maybe the film is making the point that government is big, dumb, and unchecked?  Hell, Grace’s character is able to shut down an entire town, launch a fake media blitz about that town, and coordinate massive military resources and drones, all on a mission he’s gotten no authority to launch and is highly illegal.  Not even Tea Partiers think this badly about the United States government.

What follows is a film that goes from emotional, to silly, to gory, to emotional again, and repeats for about 90 minutes.  Individual scenes work well, but it adds up to a disjointed final product that is so far-fetched and without any conceivable message or purpose that I really don’t know why Max Landis chose to write this movie.  Landis, son of filmmaker John Landis, also wrote the really, really good found-footage supervillain movie “Chronicle” (2012), and in that film he was original and his purpose was clear.  “American Ultra” has a culty sensibility.  It’s weird for the sake of being weird, it seems.  It’s a midnight movie with fairly A-list stars and a polished execution (the director, Nima Nourizadeh, previously directed the found footage teen party film “Project X”, which was a delightfully madcap celebration of excess).  My main complaint is that the makers of this film are capable of doing more, so the film feels original and lazy at the same time, which is something I haven’t felt since Eli Roth’s astoundingly tonally disjointed “Cabin Fever” (2002).

When the film actually wants to be funny, it can be fairly amusing. The early relationship drama works well, and the action is goofy and gory to a pleasing extent. John Leguizamo has a nice but too-short role where he’s clearly having fun, and Topher Grace has a nice turn as a petty asshole.  I just wish the portrayal of the CIA was either more realistic (at least movie-realistic) or even more absurdist and madcap than it is.  I wish the film had a point for existing, even if it were a minor message.  I liked enough of the parts that I wished they formed a more cohesive whole. “American Ultra” feels like an untossed salad. B-.

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