American Ultra (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

American Ultra (2015)

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Mike is trapped in his small town with his menial job and violent panic attacks when he tries to leave.  Even with the help of his love Phoebe he can't overcome his debilitating fear.  But Mike's unaware of secrets in his past because of his prodigious use of marijuana and when CIA handlers come to claim Mike he springs into a violent awakening.  Nima Nourizadeh direct American Ultra from a screenplay written by Max Landis and stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, and Topher Grace.

Love that love that hoochie mamaIf I had to consider American Ultra solely on the basis of its acting pedigree it would be an overwhelming success.  My admiration of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart proved to be well-founded in scenes where they need to stumble through a myriad of emotions but still keep the plot rolling forward.  Then you've got a devil's assortment of supporting players chomping the scenery with many clearly enjoying their opportunity to play against type.  We've got John Leguizamo, Connie Britton, and Walton Goggins playing to various degrees of unstable violence.

So why doesn't American Ultra succeed beyond these obviously game performers?  Two issues are clear upfront.  The director is Nima Nourizadeh whose previous film was the putrid Project X.  On the screenwriting front we have Max Landis who did good work on Chronicle then disappeared down the social meta internet commentary hole with shorts like The Death and Return of Superman and The Slap - which was one of many "black and white presentation of attractive people doing things" films made after the popularity of The Kiss.

Much like the disappointing We Are Your Friends from last week, American Ultra is the product of untempered youthful impulse.  It mimics the structure of "one man on a mission" films which became in vogue again thanks to The Bourne Identity and Taken.  But in approaching that structure Nouizadeh and Landis attempt a myriad of tones and storytelling techniques which make for a couple of dynamite scenes but an exhausting watch in the long-run.

Walton Goggins (and his silhouette) are great, but I'm disappointed with the limited dialogue he's given to work with.

Walton Goggins (and his silhouette) are great, but I'm disappointed with the limited dialogue he's given to work with.

There's this tendency throughout American Ultra to step back from the jokes and violence for a moment of deflation which almost lends itself to being a parody of modern action tropes.  The deflations are poorly implemented most of the time, beginning with their decision to start American Ultra with sleeper agent Mike Howell (Eisenberg) looking like he got caught up in the wrong end of a meat grinder.  In media res opening are all well and good, but instead of a smash cut to the earlier, healthier, and less violent Mike we got through the entire film in reverse as Mike recounts the events leading to his state.  This questionable decision robs American Ultra of some of its surprises up-front and considering Mike's prodigious use of marijuana is a diegetically odd way of setting up his viewpoint.

Other scenes go on for an extra beat or two you'd expect more from a stoner and less from the laser-focused CIA operatives soon out to kill him.  Agent Yates (Topher Grace) speaks with Laugher (Goggins) after Mike knocks some of Laugher's teeth out which Laugher proudly shows to Agent Yates.  The camera holds on Yates' expression for a couple of beats, lets out a "Huh," then moves on to the next scene.  Considering Yates' gung-ho attitude and the in-universe fact that he created these "Tough Guy" agents it's a scene which could be read any number of ways and none of them are satisfying.  Is it sudden ironic detachment from the idea that this sort of violence is cool?  Is Yates getting a contact buzz from being in pursuit of Mike?

What matters is the emotional tone for American Ultra varies so wildly it's difficult to get a grip on any of this stuff.  Grace isn't one of the greatest performers but he can be fun and I don't blame him for being as confused in that scene as I was to its purpose.  We'd go from deadly encounters and deeply misogynistic conversations between Yates and Agent Lasseter (Britton) to scenes of newscasters lying to a scared public that "Super Typhoid" is on the loose because Mike and Lasseter had relations with lab monkeys.  The screenplay is as much sophomoric as it is deadly serious and I wished in the long run Landis would have decided which path to take.

The "tree conversation" caught me so off guard in American Ultra I'd swear it was an outtake from Clouds of Sils Maria or The End of the Tour.

The "tree conversation" caught me so off guard in American Ultra I'd swear it was an outtake from Clouds of Sils Maria or The End of the Tour.

Nouizadeh's direction doesn't make things better.  The violence is plentiful and frequently in-frame only to largely take place off-screen in the climax.  It's a running joke how Mike is able to kill effortlessly with whatever tools are at hand, as evidenced by him slaying two operatives with a spoon and cup 'o noodles.  So why, in what may be the easiest shot setup in the world, does the climax pan to a kitchen ware aisle with Mike arming himself off-screen and move quickly from operatives as Mike dispatches them?  By the time Mike was going to town on his remaining assailants with a hammer while bafflingly obscured in smoke I realized Nourizadeh was less trying to get everything he wanted onscreen and more loosening an already disjointed grasp on American Ultra's cinematic grammar.

About those performances - Eisenberg and Stewart act the hell out of American Ultra and shift effortlessly between opposite emotional poles.  Eisenberg rings a lot of comedy out of line-readings which might have been impossible for others as he limply holds one hand up and says, "I'm still in handcuff," or how he manages to be a one-man sound effects machine for his fights without devolving to Police Academy-levels of annoyance.  Stewart gets the nod for the best work in American Ultra, playing off of Eisenberg's insecurity as Mike and making Phoebe wonderfully empathetic.  There's one scene with Eisenberg and Stewart where her subtle reactions to Eisenberg's panic are all at once reassuring and heartbreaking.

Looking at all the other talent shows how far American Ultra went off the rails.  Leguizamo slays the two scenes he's featured prominently in, Britton nails her icy hatred for Grace in two chilling glances, and Goggins is a ton of fun even if his role robs him of the intense eloquence he's so good at.  It's not exactly a shame about the rest of American Ultra but every other aspect of its production is so inconsistent my only response is frustration.

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Tail - American UltraAmerican Ultra (2015)

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh.
Screenplay written by Max Landis.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, and Topher Grace.

Posted by Andrew

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