American Ultra (2015)

Everyone’s getting smoked

Contrary to what its advertising campaign suggests, American Ultra is not a ‘stoner-comedy,’ sure, its protagonists ‘get high’ and smoke pot, but director Nima Nourizadeh’s film is a weird trip that’s much more grounded — and darker — than its trailers dare to admit. Bizarrely, American Ultra was in fact inspired by a real-life CIA attempt to create super soldiers in a former covert program called MK Ultra, which was launched in the 1950s in an effort to turn ordinary folk into superhero-level operatives. Given its far-out premise, the opening moments of American Ultra play out like an unusual little indie flick about a quirky character, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg); a smarter-than-average but completely unmotivated slacker, who’s stuck in the small town of Liman, West Virginia and works at the local convenience store, the Cash & Carry, where he illustrates a never-to-be-published graphic novel about a superhero chimp, called Apollo Ape. You see, Mike has always dreamed of taking his bail-bondsman girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) to Hawaii but can never conquer the puzzling panic attacks he experiences whenever he tries to leave the township.

Alas, Mike swiftly realizes that he is actually a sleeper agent in a failed operation named ‘Wise Man,’ created by the CIA, who have just marked him as a liability and targeted him for termination. As some of the bureau’s deadliest assets are set loose upon his sleepy town, Mike’s concerned former handler, CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), activates his dormant skills, turning the mild-mannered stoner into a superhuman killing machine. Now, Mike’s once-simple life is transformed into an adrenaline-fueled chase, with Mike quickly discovering his uncanny skill to turn even the most ordinary object into a deadly weapon. With Lasseter’s rival, the ruthless upstart Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), hot on the hapless Mike’s heels, the newly reborn action-hero must summon his inner abilities to unlock his past, protect his girlfriend, and stay alive.

Meet the CIA's highest priority.
Meet the CIA’s highest priority.

Strangely, Max Landis,’ Chronicle (2012), screenplay is at its best when it’s focusing on the emotional relationship between protagonists, Mike and Phoebe. Jesse Eisenberg — who was apparently the filmmaker’s first choice to play the slacker-turned-superspy — is oddly sweet as Mike Howell; a scene where he attempts to befuddle his way through a metaphor about a car that’s crashed into a tree, and how it symbolizes his relationship with his girlfriend Phoebe, is rather touching. Eisenberg, however, still delivers his usual laid-back charm that audiences have come to expect and is credible enough when breezing through the picture’s action beats. Okay, now I know that she’s received a bit of slack throughout her career, but I actually like Kristen Stewart and believe her to be a solid actress — just look at her work in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). Here Stewart — with her grunge-inspired neon hair — is both alluring and magnetic as Phoebe Larson, bringing depth and vitality to her character and relationship with Mike. In addition, Stewart and Eisenberg, who starred together in 2009’s Adventureland, make for a terrific on-screen couple; they clearly share chemistry together and appear completely comfortable throughout the picture’s more intimate moments. Sadly, when Landis separates the pair, the flick loses one of its strongest elements, as it steers onto a derivative damsel-in-distress path, one that’s too indicative of other recent action flicks.

Aesthetically, a large chunk of American Ultra takes place in the dark, giving the picture a real-life gritty feel, which comes across as slightly jarring when juxtaposed against the movie’s outlandish premise. Other scenes play out like an MTV style music video — there’s a sequence that takes place in fluorescent black lighting for no real reason — essentially giving the picture a frenzied, wild vibe, that works against its quieter, more sincere moments. Even American Ultra’s gore feels uneven or tacked on, exploiting violence for the sake of violence but with no real consequence other than evoking cheap giggles from patrons whilst displaying inventive ways to take out an enemy.

Walton Goggins, Kristen Stewart and Topher disgrace!
Walton Goggins, Kristen Stewart and Topher disgrace!

Furthermore, bar Stewart and Eisenberg, the feature’s secondary players are all somewhat shrug worthy; Topher Grace, Spider-Man 3 (2007), is aggressively awful as the over-the-top villain, Adrian Yates — seriously, why do people keep casting this guy as a baddie? — while John Leguizamo’s, Romeo + Juliet (1996), trademark energy is totally wasted in his underdeveloped role as Rose, Mike’s offbeat drug-dealer friend. Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights (2004), doesn’t really do mush as Victoria Lasseter, a goal-oriented agent who later reveals her softer side, as for Bill Pullman, Independence Day (1996) … talk about utterly pointless! Arriving with an alarming silhouette, Walton Goggins,’ Django Unchained (2012), henchman, Laugher, looks as though he might make for a memorable adversary as he gleefully rips up a police station, but again, director Nima Nourizadeh, Project X (2012), fails to satisfy, even on this front. Fortunately, the inventive animated Apollo Ape credit sequence — where the film’s main characters are depicted as comic book caricatures of themselves — should leave a fairly sweet aftertaste in patron’s mouths.

To state that American Ultra is a strange movie would be an understatement; it’s too bleak and blood thirsty to work as an outright comedy, too conservative to appeal to cult cinema fanatics, too much of a hipster dramedy to attract action film aficionados and when you really break it down to its most basic elements, it’s virtually about a guy who’s trying to propose to his girlfriend … talk about tonally jumbled! Given its muddled nature, this anti-CIA flick works in bits and pieces, but doesn’t really gel together as a whole. Sporting a few good sequences and a couple of decent performances, American Ultra is an uneven amalgam of genres that doesn’t quite live up to its absurd potential.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

American Ultra is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia