“It’s like Bourne Identity meets Pineapple Express.”
That’s the quote that all trailers of American Ultra showed, trying to champion this mesh of genres like it was a winning formula, but in reality, it was the tonal inconsistency that plagues this movie. That’s not to say there aren’t some good things about this divisive and often mean-spirited film, but it could’ve been much better if it didn’t try to be Tarantino’s uglier cousin.
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X), American Ultra centers around a deadly night in the small rural West Virginian town of Liman. There, once stable stoner Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and his loving, also stoner girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) have their lives turned upside-down when two hit-men come to assassinate Mike while he’s at work at the local convenience store. Mike finds out instantly that he has some innate abilities inside of him, as he takes them out with nothing but a spoon and a bowl of ramen noodles. Driven to protect Phoebe, he finds himself both on the run and in pursuit (it makes little sense) of CIA operative Yates (Topher Grace) who has a whole slew of experimented-upon super-soldiers to send after Mike. Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, and Bill Pullman co-star.
The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is both notable and remarkable. The two of them, holed up in their tiny home with tiny jobs, tiny aspirations, but lots of love for each other really works. They may both be slackers, but they value the teamwork of the other, and during the insanity that makes up the action of this film, it manages to keep a sense of romanticism that was at once completely surprising and very well-done. Eisenberg may be confused about what is happening to him, but his loyal protection of Stewart, and the way they traverse the dangerous circumstances they’ve been thrown into, is charming.
Once the film centers over to the Topher Grace character, and his hammed-up CIA operative that sends out dozens of soldiers to kill Mike, eliciting a surprising backstory from Connie Britton and basically lacking any serious motivation, the entire feel of the film changes for the worse. The oddly romantic and quite funny intro is turned into something a bit more uncomfortable. It’s obvious that the way Topher Grace wanted to play this character was both for humor and for him to seem dangerous, but it doesn’t work, and once Mike gets put into real danger, a character we’ve grown to like, the film has trouble going back to being funny anymore. When the light-hearted spirit vanishes, so does the enjoyment of watching this thing.
Complaints about the justification and plot-structure of the CIA scenes are just as warranted. It seems that any character can just instantly command brain-washed troops into battle against a super-soldier, and very rarely are there consequences for any actions that are taken. Topher Grace screaming his head off at nobody for lengthy scenes that take away from our main characters was supposed to be a form of comic relief, but the comedy was left with Eisenberg’s greasy hair. The additions of Connie Britton and Bill Pullman are unnecessary and do nothing but slow the plot down. The right thing to do would’ve been to have a different reason for setting Eisenberg in battle, one that keeps the kindred spirit of the first act.
The action is filmed very well, in a stylistic sense of anarchy where the camera goes from still to oft-centered, to hand-held, to sweeping all in the same scene. The frantic pace is meant to mirror Eisenberg’s state of mind, frazzled and probably under the influence of marijuana. This is a stylistic choice that absolutely works to the film’s benefit, and a few of the stunts and tension scenes with a specific opposition agent named Laugher (Walton Goggins) is just insane. When the tone goes from funny to insane, it works. Funny and romantic to bloody and mean-spirited does not work quite as well. If there’s a larger point to made here about the U.S. Government (other than how easy they pull the trigger or misinterpret a situation), it escapes the viewer’s grasp in the movie. Topher Grace’s despicable character is supposed to mean something, and any deeper roots beneath the insanity that is American Ultra must’ve gotten siphoned out during the intense choreography.
So, as the film decides to choose violence over playfulness, our attention begins to wane, and even though the running time stays short, the final act is a bit of a drag. There are some narrative choices that should’ve been changed, but the solid action scenes were enough to stay interested. It’s a unique spy/thriller, but it is one, and the gun-play and hand-to-hand combat are both handled very well. The beginning is funny, the entire thing is a little romantic, and Eisenberg and Stewart both give solid, grounded performances that anchor the craziness. There’s a ton of it that doesn’t work, but there’s enough on it that does.
P.S. If you’re still in the section of the population that disregards and discredits Kristen Stewart, then fuck off. After Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, Camp X-Ray, and even Panic Room, Speak, and Adventureland, she’s proven that she is a versatile and capable actress. Her performance opposite Juliette Binoche in ‘Sils Maria’ is one of the Best Supporting Actress performances of 2015, and even if you are an unwarranted Twilight hater, the hate shouldn’t carry over into Stewart’s other work. It’s time to pay attention.