American Ultra and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Did someone finally remake Natural Born Killers? No? That sacred cow hasn’t been milked yet? Eh… give it time. Until then, we’ve got the next big film from Max Landis. No, he didn’t direct it. He wrote the movie and it’s his big follow up after Chronical, and we all know how well things turned out for the OTHER guy who made that movie! All joking aside, Chronical was one of the best examples of not only the found footage genre but the super hero genre as well. The story was complex and heartfelt while still being an exciting and unique take on portraying super powers in film. Can Max Landis pull off another hit with this film about a stoner sleeper agent, or will he be doomed to the same fate as Josh Trank whose sophomore slump is easily the biggest disaster of the year? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) who’s some dipshit loser in West Virginia with a lousy job, a drug problem, and a condition where he has panic attacks whenever he tries to leave town. The only good thing the sad sack has going for him is his sad sack girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) who’s only slightly more functional than he is in that she doesn’t nearly burn the house down due to her own absent mindedness. Mike is certainly trying to do better by her, but this is a guy with no ambition and little imagination. Aside from his doodles about an astronaut ape, he barely gives off any signs of conscious thought other than guilt for being lucky enough to find Phoebe and the fact that she loves him just as much as he loves her. Of course, things aren’t as simple as they seem. Being a man child movie, our hero has to have some super ability that they didn’t really earn, and in this case it turns out that he’s actually a decommissioned CIA sleeper agent with skills to rival James Bond… despite being MAYBE twenty five (at least as far as the movie is trying to sell the premise as). Of course, being an unstoppable badass who ain’t doing shit to no one, some pencil pushing mother fucker (Adrian Yates played by Topher Grace) decides that Mike needs to be eliminated and sends out a bunch of goons to 86 the bastard. The original leader of the program that turned Jesse Eisenberg into teenage Terminator (Victoria Lassetter played by Connie Britton) gets wind of this and is doing what she can to keep him alive while he starts to remember the skills he had in the past. Can he survive these attempts on his life and get his girlfriend through this ordeal safely, or will the weight of these revelations be too much for him to handle?
This movie was very disappointing in the end, but that’s mostly because of how much I was enjoying the beginning of this movie and where I was hoping it would go. The movie’s premise is one we’ve seen in many spy films in the past such as Total Recall, The Bourne Identity, A History of Violence, and even that crappy movie RED. Despite the myriad of obvious influences in the script, it still managed to have its own unique spin on this kind of story by having sharply written dialogue and characters more akin to a Larry Clark film than anything else. Aside from the fact that both of our lead actors are floating around 30, they’re very convincing as people squandering their youth due to having no real direction in their life. They’ve been complacent about getting by with the bare minimum for so long that they find themselves trapped by their own apathy.
It’s a perfect setup for a story about someone either realizing their own potential or realizing what it means to actually be good for someone other to just love them unconditionally. Unfortunately, the movie never really goes in that direction and decides to replace any heart felt sincerity with smug cynicism. Oh joy. Why make a movie we can give a shit about when you can just point at things and sneer? What the movie reminds me most of are the Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar collaborations (Kickass and Kingsman) which suffer from a lot of the same problems. All those movies to a certain extent are unpleasant to sit through at points as the directors seem to take glee in showing the worst of humanity without much of a point as far as I can tell. I feel that this one is the worst offend of that with Kickass being set in world that call for the depravity and Kingsmen being MOSTLY lighthearted throughout. Here though? It’s not just mean spirited, it’s DUMB about it. Topher Grace is great as the bad guy in this, but the amount of power he wields in his position is just cartoony and undercuts whatever fucking message they were trying to get across about the government or whatever and it just comes off as pointlessly dark.
The thing is that I’m NOT against movies being dark. For fuck’s sake, I just saw The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover recently and thought it was a god damn masterpiece. My favorite movie of all time is Dr. Strangelove, and that ends with all of humanity being utterly annihilated due to man’s own short sightedness and the machinations of a fluid obsessed nut. Maybe there’s a certain threshold for darkness that I can’t handle. I mean, I won’t even watch stuff like Super or Attack on Titan because I know I’d just sit there being pissed off most of the time, so this little screed against American Ultra’s dickish view of the government (THEY GONNA START DRONE STRIKING THE IN OUR BACKYARD!!) might fall of deaf ears and may be enjoyable for the rest of you. It goes a bit beyond JUST having the government be THIS unaccountable and vindictive though. The logic behind even getting there is suspect, so maybe you won’t hate it as much as I do but it should be clear to see how stupid it is for anyone working for the CIA to have carte blanche to do whatever the fuck they want for a night right in the USA.
So aside from the tone of the movie and the questionable plot points in the latter portion of the movie, is there anything else that didn’t work in the movie? I’ll give the movie credit for this. The second half has MUCH better action scenes than the first half which I thought were pretty poorly filmed with lots of shaky cam and quick cuts. Hell, it wasn’t until nearly halfway through the first major fight in a police station that I realized one of the goons coming after Jesse Eisenberg was actually played by Walton Goggins who’s REALLY good in the movie. The less than stellar action didn’t bother me at first because I was still expecting this movie to go in some interesting directions with some great character arcs, but once the movie started to play it’s hand as a cheeky nihilistic tale, the weak action early on became less forgiving. Along with the plot points I didn’t like in the second half, there’s a character reveal right at the halfway point that at first seemed like an interesting twist on these kind of stories, but ended up going nowhere important and only raised a whole bunch of questions on how that would even work and about decisions that character made in the first half of the movie. Again, the second half seems to ruin everything. I’m not going to spoil what the twist is (the trailers do a good job of hiding it), but it was ultimately for naught. Jesse Eisenberg’s character as well never seems to come into his own until WAY too late in the game with a good fifteen minute stretch (in the second half if you couldn’t guess) doing absolutely nothing besides pissing and moaning. It MIGHT have worked if they bothered to go into it all that much (he’s losing his damn mind and is looking for normalcy and familiarity after dealing with everything that’s happened in the last couple of hours), but at best it’s done for a couple of stoner jokes.
Oh, and the epilogue sucks. What they do with at the end undercuts any sort of message they wanted to get across, unless the message is that everyone is terrible so why not be an asshole too. Yeah, no. Not going with them on that one. It sounds like I really hated this movie considering I’ve done nothing but bitch about it, but I only come across that way because of how much I genuinely enjoyed everything up to the half way point in the movie. Everyone in this movie is bringing their A game with Topher Grace being a standout as a great smarmy douche nozzle who I want to see in SO many more movies as a bad guy! Even Kristen Stewart who has probably the most thankless role in this movie does a great job with her character in here and you really buy the pathetic romance between her and Jesse Eisenberg. Walton Goggins, while being just a touch too over the top and one dimensional, is proving himself to be a wonderful character actor and may have a strong career ahead of him if Nicolas Cage doesn’t get his shit together. The dialogue is pretty good throughout, though it starts to falter in the second act, and there are nice visual touches here and there to give the movie some stylistic flavor which makes it an appealing film to sit through even though they’re going for a very gritty look and feel. The big action scene at the end (being the big bright spot in the second half of the movie) is a culmination of the really great aspects of this movie coming together for a really fantastic couple of minutes. It has great cinematography, it’s humorous while still being believable, and it’s dark in a fun way rather than being obnoxious about it.
The first half of the movie really grabbed my attention and pulled me in which makes the second half so disappoint when it ended up pulling me out of the experience entirely, save for the climax. Still though, it’s hard for me to judge if the stuff I did not like in the second half (save for some of the logic issues) are in any way objectively bad or just the antithesis to my own personal taste when it comes to movies. It definitely feels like a film that will split audiences because of this, and I definitely think it’s worth watching. Despite Max Landis’s bitching about how audiences didn’t take to the film he wrote, I expect this to have a bit of longevity as a cult classic and will certainly find its audience in time. For now though, it might be worth seeing in theaters if you’re like me and have already seen what else in playing right now, but it’s certainly not the best thing out there right now no matter how “original” Max Landis thinks this is.
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