American Ultra Promises A Big High, But Barely Gives A Buzz
Despite a valiant injection of appreciated effort on behalf of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, the hyper violent stoner action comedy “American Ultra” ultimately goes up in smoke.
Cherry progressive, Listen. Mandlebredset is in motion. Echo quire has been breached.
On the surface, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a neurotic 20-something stoner living in small town West Virgina. He loves his girlfriend Phoebe whom he’d one day like to marry. He works as a clerk for a convenience store while daydreaming about his imaginative yet unwritten Apollo Ape chronicle. Beneath the surface, Mike Howell is actually a highly-capable and lethal government asset who has been flagged for termination.
An excersize in gratuitous, albeit creative, violence, “American Ultra” embraces the latter half of its namesake. The pitfall? The film’s rough and choppy editing coupled with the ‘ultra’ thin story doesn’t give the earnest but overworked Eisenberg and Stewart the room to fully execute their cinematic mission.
Cinematics (Plot, Acting, Cinematography, etc.) – 2
“American Ultra” is an interesting, yet mildly contrived, concept gone awry from an over-attention to the superficial and lack of attention to the development of the story. Writer Max Landis (“Chronicle”) delivers a choppy and woefully basic dialogue, presenting the relatively talented cast with a somewhat un-clearable hurdle. Landis would have been better served spending less times observing the aisles of local grocery stores for fight-scene research, and instead focusing on creating a believable rapport between all but two of the characters.
In the beginning, Relatively green director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) does a decent job setting the scene, giving the audience a vivid glimpse of the broad strokes of Mike Howell’s (Eisenberg) seemingly mundane life. The dilemma however quickly becomes predictability. The broom closet deep story doesn’t leave much room for intrigue and cinematic texture, and the awe from the explosions and broken glass littered scenes grows old. The overall feel of the film is relatively bland with a hearty smattering of flash and gunplay to conceal the often contrived and trite dialogue.
Just like Howell pleas amidst his initial interrogation scene, “it just happened,” the movie also seemed to just happen. “American Ultra” is similar in that it was not a contoured experience with memorable occasions, rather a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine rigged with violent set piece after violent set piece. At a point in the film, it seems almost as though the plot is entirely driven by the need to setup the next over-the-top and crimson colored fight scene.
Without the heavily invested performances of a few of the motley cast members, the film would have left little to keep one’s derrière ensnared by the theatre chair. A notable, yet short-lived performance was John Leguizamo’s heavily tatted and verbally creative drug dealer, Rose. Leguizamo kept the grins coming with his oddball persona. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s chemistry was spot-on, bringing the audience a very believable duo of underachieving stoners in love.
Topher Grace (“That ’70s Show”) is Agent Adrian Yates, a prick-ish pencil pusher who comes into a swollen sense of authority and misplaced patriotism. Grace’s portrayal is often inconsistent and at times campy enough to break the illusion of the film. Conversely Connie Britton’s (“Spin City” | “Nashville”) Agent Veronica Lassiter is the quintessential good-agent gone rogue. She provides enough loose delivery to match the tone of the script, but maintains enough seriousness to keep the illusion and appeal of an action film.
One point of outrage stems from a character by the name of Laugher (Walton Goggins | “Django Unchained”). Laugher is a depraved maniac/mind-control mercenary who just laughs at everything which reminds me of a watered down bootleg Joker. In general the film plays out much like a less-keenly executed “Bourne Identity” with weed.” Ultimately, many interesting potential plot points were either left on the table or sacrificially dead-ended for the sake of more action.
Entertainment Value – 3
Be it however gratuitous, the action and violence in “American Ultra” is both creative and detailed. From every crushing blow delivered by a canned good to ricocheting bullets off of airborne cookware, the high energy action element is indisputable.
Eisenberg pulls off the unwitting assassin role as best as the script and direction would allow. All the action scenes are oddly believable, albeit a bit over-done by the time we arrive at the final fight scene. All the textures and sentiments of what one would expect from small town West Virginia are there, from the overly invasive sheriff to the dated strip malls and clothing.
Nourizadeh’s obsession with broken glass finally pays off as the scenes were all colorfully destroyed into a Picasso of rubble. If the same amount of attention that was given to the set and action was given to the development of the story, “American Ultra” would go from mildly buzzed to fully stoned.
Re-Watchability – 2.5
Given it’s visually driven presentation, if “American Ultra” were to come on TV or get brought over by a friend I wouldn’t refuse it. On the other hand, I won’t be rushing out to buy the Blu-Ray or Digital Copy anytime soon either.
Watch the Official Trailer for “American Ultra” below.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavell Crawford and Stuart Greer.
“American Ultra” debuted in theaters on August 21, 2015 and is a Lionsgate release.
In the category of Stoner Action-Comedy, I give “American Ultra” 2.5 out of 5 bloody spoons.
Although “American Ultra” may have it’s high moments, it’s senselessness goes beyond it’s violent landscape ultimately diminishing the film's cinematic worthiness. If you are in the mood to see a relatively well-acted yet wholy senseless stoner action-comedy, then this 1 hour and 36 minutes of bloody spoons and explosions is just the ticket. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more refined experience, “American Ultra” may not be the right flavor.