by Philip Price
“American Ultra” is fine. It is somewhat ambitious and somewhat derivative, but most of the time it plays things right down the middle and offers little more than we expect. It is subtly silly, not laugh-out-loud hilarious though it maintains its ridiculousness throughout given it's honest with itself and well aware of what it is. In short, the film is a trivial exercise in triviality given it makes light of typically serious subjects such as secret agents and government operations, but will never be seen as more than a tiny blip on the pop culture radar. This is no crime against humanity as those who have even a modicum of interest in something akin to this will likely give it a shot while those who don't, won't and are not really missing out on much. Sure, “American Ultra” has its redeemers, but none are strong enough to qualify it for a recommendation and while I sat watching the film, both amused and bemused for much of the time strangely enough, I couldn't help but to think how inconsequential it all felt. I didn't actively dislike the film, in fact I was more than happy to sit down and watch both Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart again as I've come to really enjoy “Adventureland” more and more over the years, but never throughout the course of experiencing this film did I find myself invested in any aspect of what was happening. It's almost as if the film is so trivial that it's not even worth saying much about it, but that would be to diminish the solid qualities and obvious heart that has gone into creating the product and I genuinely hate to minimize that effort to less than it is. Whether it be in the inherent chemistry between our two leads, the strong supporting cast that is selling the mess out of this outlandish material or the rather deft tone of the film as a whole there are certainly selling points and things to enjoy. The problem is, that deft quality seems to be one the film owes more to its script than to its director and some of that intended mentality was lost in translation.
Written by Max Landis, “American Ultra” concerns itself with small-town stoner Mike (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart). Mike is the type of guy who seems content in his dead-end job working at the local "Cash-N-Carry" which more or less looks like a gas station without the pumps. Of course, Mike is also a guy who seems to be a fairly decent artist and has created his own cast of characters for which he likes to write and illustrate comics. Phoebe is the supportive girlfriend who wants to see him do something more with his life than get high and re-stock the groceries, but at the same time is perfectly happy with the Mike she first met. And oh yeah, Mike also likes to do drugs. While the marketing has made this a key comedy selling point, in all actuality it is more of an extraneous character trait used to inform the comedy than anything having to do with the story. It makes the fact this guy is actually supposed to be a trained assassin all the more humorous, but that's about it. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh the film takes a turn once it is revealed that Mike is in fact a government operative and some result of a science experiment gone wrong (think Bourne) that has now been marked as a liability and is targeted for extermination. Enter the likes of Topher Grace as a newly-appointed CIA administrator of some sort who is keen on overseeing a successful and important mission for the sole purpose of raising his profile while Connie Britton is the veteran who started the program that created Mike and whom she sees as a puppy she needs to save rather than the rabid, scary dog Grace's character wants to put down.
What I enjoyed most about “American Ultra” though is that it's not too big for its britches. With such a premise things could have easily gone the way of Eisenberg's Mike getting pulled into some kind of mission and utilized for reasons beyond his understanding while the overarching theme would have been to make him realize how much he loves Phoebe and that he needs to get his life together or something like that. The good thing here though is that Mike already knows how much he loves Phoebe. In fact, there is a running joke about him finding the right moment to propose. The film never pulls Mike into a bigger mission and the film never takes on a bigger scope, but instead stays focused on the character development of Mike after such a revelation. Mike is the mission. This may seem like a rather small compliment, but it truly is tough to remain self-contained when the impulse to go bigger is creeping around every corner. Whether it be in the self-referential way that Grace's Adrian Yates points out the unnecessary tents pitched in the Max Mart grocery store or the number of disposable muscle men crammed into the back of a truck like sardines waiting for the word "go,” there are certainly tendencies lurking. “American Ultra” knows it's limits though and doesn't allow itself to get out of hand as far as its scope is concerned, but when it comes down to story it can't help but become slightly convoluted. This is a real shame too as I was hoping that with the way things were going and would presumably play out, Landis wouldn't have chosen to take a certain route with a certain character, but he does. While I shouldn't criticize a film for what I think it should have done and merely accept it for what it does and evaluate it accordingly, this reveal was rather disappointing. I understand why it was done and why it makes sense with the overall plot, but it just feels like a cliché in a movie calling out clichés.
The highlights of the film outweigh this slight complaint though as it ends up being rather charming when taken on its own terms. Landis has written a kind of rift on the B-movie thrillers of the eighties and amped up the bloody violence to eleven. This juxtaposition of comedy and graphic violence is, for one reason or another, always endearing and elevates the fun level to just above average. Nourizadeh and his team have crafted a set of very lived-in environments that feel authentic. The house that Eisenberg and Stewart's characters call home seems as if it's been slowly accumulating knick-knacks and other worthless junk for years while the same is true of the "Cash-N-Carry" Mike works at. With this, Nourizadeh has shot his film with a certain set of blues and reds that compliment a soundtrack eliciting the feel of a simpler time that somehow also mesh well with the more hip tone of the script. Eisenberg uses his rather lax tone and passive-aggressive manners to make the timid Mike as a stone cold killer the funniest bit in the movie while continuing the theme of juxtaposition. The way in which Mike will simply ask two strange men who are clearly meddling with his car to "stop doin' shit to my car" is what offers the subtle smiles as does the fact he feels it necessary to clean up after his kills. Paired once again with Stewart, we buy their relationship immediately, but unfortunately Stewart isn't given as much to do here as she was in their prior collaboration. On the supporting side of things John Leguizamo and Walton Goggins are having some good fun with rather caricature-like figures and the inclusion of Bill Pullman is just a nice little wink and nod to the movies that so clearly inspired Landis to write this. If only Landis had found his script compelling enough to direct we may have had something a bit more in-tune with the tone and as a result, more notable.