American Ultra – Review
By David Baldwin
Six years ago in the thick of Twilight fever, Kristin Stewart starred with Jesse Eisenberg in the little seen but ridiculously enjoyable and offbeat Adventureland. It tragically came and went without much fan fare, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the film has still not found its true audience. The film was great, and the pair were great together. And now they are reuniting for this week’s offbeat American Ultra — and it may prove to be another film that will struggle to find an audience.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in a small US town. He is not all there and has a number of behavioural and social problems. While he struggles to control his issues, he harbours a secret even he does not know — he is actually a fully trained government operative, and has been marked for extermination. But all bets are off when this “sleeper agent” is activated.
It gets a little more complicated from there, but at its heart, American Ultra wants to be a genuinely silly action/comedy. It just lacks all the ingredients to successfully pull it off.
American Ultra is a small movie, packed with huge expansive ideas. It addresses a few of them passively, and satirizes a few others. But the majority are left to simmer with little to no explanation. And when that does not work, it throws in a few twists to shake things up. It becomes a bit tedious for such a short movie (clocking in at 95-minutes), but it never seems sure of itself – and ends up feeling like a jumbled mess of ideas.
If that was not enough, it seems embarrassingly obvious that director Nima Nourizadeh (who’s only other credited feature is the underrated party film Project X) and writer Max Landis (best known for writing the found footage superhero film Chronicle, directed by current Hollywood punching bag Josh Trank) cannot seem to mesh the comedy with the action here. It struggles right from the start to be funny, missing the mark in practically every instance. I heard a few chuckles here and there at my screening, but everyone on-screen seems to be on a different page. Should they be acting totally serious through every scene? Should they be a little more tongue in cheek? Eisenberg seems game for how tonally unsound the film is, but he seems to be the only one.
Luckily the action scenes make up for the lack of laughs. Each scene is increasingly more absurd than the next, but they are all consistently inventive and a lot of fun. Nourizadeh is a heavily stylized filmmaker, and his hyper violent fight scenes reflect this. They are near kinetic and bursting with energy; the camera always moving to capture everything it can. It almost feels like these scenes belong to a totally separate film. I was actually surprised by how ludicrously violent the film becomes and how much CGI blood gets sprayed. If the supposed laughs were as great as some of these fight scenes, then this could have been a significantly stronger film.
Outside of Eisenberg who seems to embrace and rise above all of the film’s flaws, the only other standout performance is from Walton Goggins as one of the government ops trying to take Mike down. He does not get to say much, but his demented sense of humour adds layers to an otherwise one-note character. The rest of the cast, Stewart included, seem to only get a few lines here and there to help accelerate the plot, but then basically sit idle waiting for the next scene. I felt especially bad for Tony Hale, who seems to have been asked to mash up his characters from Arrested Development and Veep — but never gets the chance to make his performance anywhere near as memorable.
And I would be remiss without mentioning how odd it sounds to hear Topher Grace swear his face off here. It’s outlandish enough that he’s trying to play a villain, but hearing Eric Foreman dropping F-bombs just sounds ridiculous.
There are some fun ideas and genuinely inventive fight scenes sprinkled through American Ultra, but the film around them is a near total mess. Even with its problems, Eisenberg saves it from total oblivion, giving a fun performance that seems to be tuned into all of the nuances of the story that everyone else misses entirely. Thankfully the film is mercifully short and does not overstay its welcome — something a few too many movies were not successful doing this summer. I just wish the filmmakers could have added in a bit of substance along the way.