Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Written by Max Landis
In the past decade, there have been many successful films in many different styles. For instance, the Jason Bourne series single-handedly created a new action movie style that begot plenty of other knock-offs, even, arguably, the James Bond film Quantum of Solace. There have also been cute indie romance films, like Adventureland in particular (as its cast ties in nicely with that of this film). Of course, the master of derivation himself, Quentin Tarantino, has released a few hits these past 10 years as well. Then of course you also have the stoner-comedies like Pineapple Express. Everything comes from somewhere, and even with the films mentioned above, they came from something released even before them. With American Ultra, director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis want all of it. They throw the kitchen sink at the project, and hope some of it sticks.
Fortunately for them, some of it does stick, but that doesn’t keep American Ultra from being ultra-derivative, ultra-violent and not-so-ultra-awesome. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) appears to be your typical small town West Virginia stoner who lives with his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) and works at a convenience store. He has anxiety attacks that arise when he attempts to leave the city limits, but he soon finds out this is the result of CIA training, and that he is a sleeper agent. When a fellow agent (Topher Grace) attempts an operation to eliminate Howell, Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), who developed Howell, sets out to stop this from happening. Meanwhile, the whole town of Liman, West Virginia is under siege and Mike’s unknown skills are unwrapped as he threatens to take down the whole force set out to eliminate him, and possibly his girlfriend.
I entered the film with mixed feelings, as there are many elements I knew ahead of time that brought both good and bad omens to the film. For one, I have traditionally enjoyed Jesse Eisenberg and appreciate Kristen Stewart as an actress. With what I could gather form the trailer, however, the film could either be brilliant, like Pineapple Express, or just be plain dumb. It had the potential to go either way. The worst omen I feared was the director of the project, Nourizadeh, whose previous film, Project X, was one of the worst films I have seen in recent memory. The total lack of morals and meaningful filmmaking choices really lowered my expectations for his follow up, American Ultra. Perhaps then that is why I was able to enjoy the film as much as I did.
It certainly throws the kitchen sink at you, wanting to introduce elements of love/romance all the while depicting gruesome violence coupled with stoner comedy. It is a mixed bag at best, but I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the elements work on their own. The combination of everything is where the film begins to lose its way and become uneven. I credit Max Landis for the brief moments of success, mirroring what he was able to do with Chronicle and bring a fairly outrageous idea and ground it with solid, relatable, real characters mixed up in a completely insane un-reality. The moments of outrageous fun are likely Nourizadeh’s to blame/praise (depending on your point of view). The cast mostly shines through, Eisenberg and Stewart in particular, with Topher Grace as perhaps the most annoying presence, though that could be intentional.
Ultimately, American Ultra is a film that tries too hard to be too many things, and harken back to too many of its influences. There are scenes that recall such action movie greats as The Terminator and First Blood, but they are almost too on the nose and mixed with too much unsettling gore right next to things that are supposed to make you laugh. I’ve seen the gore comedy work before in Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, but there is an element to the formula that seems to work better there than it does here, and perhaps American Ultra, as ludicrous as it is, takes itself a little too seriously to pull it off quite as well as Tucker and Dale. Whatever the worry, there is good to be found in American Ultra, and elements that will win audiences over and make the film its money. The unevenness prevents it from being anything more.
*** – Good