Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kirsten Stewart, Topher Grace
Film review by Kieran Freemantle
The year of spy films continues with another attempt to start a franchise, American Ultra. Written by Chronicle’s Max Landis and directed by Product X (2012) Nima Nourizadeh, American Ultra is an action comedy that has been dubbed “The Stoner Identity”. However it is lacking one crucial element – jokes.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner and a loser with no memories of his life and works as a convenience store clerk in the small town of Liman, West Virginia. The only ray of light in his life is his relationship with Phoebe (Kirsten Stewart) and he plans to propose to her. But Mike becomes the target of a CIA black ops team, led by Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), awakening Mike’s spy training and the town suffers as it becomes a battleground.
When the trailer was released American Ultra did look like it was going to be a mash-up between The Bourne Identity and Pineapple Express, having humour based on drugs shenanigans with moments of dark comedy violence. But the movie is much more serious then you would expect. The film starts with Mike narrating how much he loves Phoebe and he suffers severe panic attacks if he tries to leave the town, similar to Truman Burbank in The Truman Show. Despite the film being marketed as comedy, Landis is more influenced by Shane Black’s writing, mixing comedy, drama and action and deconstructs the action genre - Landis wanted to delve deeper into Mike's character, fleshing him out to be more then a stereotypical stoner, that he is someone who knows nothing about his past or his family. The comparison with The Bourne Identity is fitting, American Ultra is also a lot like the Shane Black scripted The Long Kiss Goodnight, another film about a person with amnesia living in a small town who finds out that that they were a super-spy and must find out their own past.
Most of the cast play their roles straight and they are mostly competent. Eisenberg brings out the depth in Mike and is surprisingly convicing in the action sequences. Though Kirsten Stewart has a reputation for being cold and stiff - because of her role in the Twilight series - she was a likeable presence and had chemistry with her on screen partner. However, Topher Grace as Adrian Yates was the worst performer, acting like he came from a different film. He was given many crass lines and throughout the film there is an over use of the F word just to get an easy comedic or dramatic response. But Grace does occasionally cause a snigger which is more then some characters.
Tonally American Ultra is jagging with its characters. Connie Brittain as Mike's former handler is like Pamela Landy from the Bourne series, protecting and aiding Mike as much as possible within the intelligence apparatus. Brittain, along with a big name actor who will not be revealed to avoid spoilers, are characters that could fit into a serious spy thriller or action thriller, yet there are other characters who look like they stepped out of a completely different film, such as John Leguizamo as a audaciously dressed dealer and Walton Goggins' Laughter, a skilled psychopathic henchman for Yates - which is another trademark of Black's writing.
American Ultra is a big improvement over Nourizadeh's last film, but considering his last film was the repulsive found-footage movie Project X that was not much of a challenge. Nourizadeh is a terrible comedy director; there were some attempts at witty lines and visual comedy but both the delivery and timing was flat and it did not pack the punch it should have. An idea of Mike killing a couple of men with only a spoon and a hot Pot Noodle should have had a darkly funny quality to it, but even that was directed and performed too seriously.
Nourizadeh was better on the action front and American Ultra did have some strong action sequences. The fist fights are hard hitting as men brawl, punch and wrestle and shoot-outs are entertaining to watch. The best action sequence comes near the end where Mike has to fight his way through a Walmart-like store, using whatever items are available as his kills them. It was violent and the camera followed the action in a seemingly continuous take. The scene in an ultra-violet lit basement which made whites very striking and was a fantastic visual.
Max Landis lambasted American Ultra's disappointing performance on audiences wanting franchise films or films from big name directors instead of 'original ideas'. That argument would actually hold water if the film was a lot better, did not use ideas from other stories or the fact that Landis was planning a sequel, 'International Ultra' before American Ultra was even released.
American Ultra was not funny for its premise, being too dramatic and whatever comedy that did show up was too underwhelming. Most of the cast try their best and the action is well choreographed, yet it is overshadowed by much better action-comedies.