Thursday, August 20, 2015

American Ultra: Movie Review


Goes for more action than comedy, but is entertaining.
American Ultra is trying to juggle quite a few ideas, a few genres, and different styles of humour, but it can be a genuinely good time in its earnestness to be entertaining. First it's a stoner comedy and it's a Hollywood-style shoot 'em up action movie, all the while actually being based in reality – albeit a hyper-stylized, uber-violent, way over-the-top form of reality. And you usually can't put those adjectives and the word “reality” in the same sentence, so you can get a sense of the problems that American Ultra is creating for itself. 2015

Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh

Screenplay by: Max Landis

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart

The movie starts with the characters; introducing us to Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). So let's start there as well. The lead characters are great. They're funny, interesting, well-created, and wholly entertaining. They also created a bad-ass female character who is both caring and able to kick serious ass. Mike is a dweeby stoner, who suffers panic attacks, and is on a first-name basis with the local police force. He works at a convenience store in a small town in West Virginia and his life isn't going anywhere. But he's in love with his girlfriend and hopes she won't leave him. Phoebe appears to be much smarter than Mike, but loves getting high, and puts up with him because she really does care about him and finds him interesting.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as "Mike Howell" in AMERICAN ULTRA.
Photo credit: Alan Markfield/Elevation Pictures.
Then the laughs begin in full when Mike is about to be murdered by two CIA agents but he takes them out with a spoon. Mike's reactions to this, both immediately after the event and for the next full act of the movie, are hilarious. This includes brilliant discussions of a car hitting a tree, analysis of how he could be a robot, and Phoebe's comments on things he should not do when people are trying to kill him. For what should be a stoner action-comedy, these characters were given some excellent, and even original, comedy.

While even more agents are sent to kill Mike, we're given snippets of what's going on. The reality that this is based on is a real program run by the CIA called MK Ultra – it is a shockingly immoral and illegal program, and while the movie takes it to places that would never have happened, the agents portrayed have a lack of morals and regard for the law and human life that the real ones who ran the program would have also lacked.

It's that tie-in between extreme action-comedy to real-life that the movie struggles with. It's a tough balancing act that Men Who Stare at Goats tried with a more straight-forward comedic tone. Which probably would have served this movie better. Topher Grace played the lead CIA guy, but he is just so far from anything resembling a human being that his attempts at comedy just fall flat. Same with the extremely high number of agents that work for him. They don't have remotely the same comedic tone that Eisenberg and Stewart established that there's significant fall in quality from the lead characters to the supporting ones.
Laugher (Walton Goggins, left), Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart, center) and Adrian Yates (Topher Grace, right)
in AMERICAN ULTRA. Photo credit: Alan Markfield/Elevation Pictures.
There's also an unfortunate reveal with Stewart's character which undoes a lot of the comedy that she had in the first half. This has to happen when the movie tries to tie everything back to explain the CIA's role. However, luckily, when good characters are created, a setback won't deter from further enjoyment that they give you. There's a high number of agents who need to be murdered, all killed in a new way, which all require a lot of blood to be splattered. I could have done with a lot less bloody and violent deaths. But these need to occur for Mike and Phoebe to be together. And ulimately I love American Ultra for giving me these thoroughly entertaining characters who are as funny as they are wickedly tough.

Similar Titles:

Spy (2015) - Funny as a spy spoof but does venture into spy action.