Here’s my review of AMERICAN ULTRA (2015) published at cinemaknifefight.com this past weekend.
MOVIE REVIEW: AMERICAN ULTRA (2015)
By Michael Arruda
What do you get when you cross THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002) with ZOMBIELAND (2009) or any other Jesse Eisenberg movie for that matter?
You get AMERICAN ULTRA (2015), an action comedy that puts Eisenberg and his now recognizable shtick- the super smart socially awkward yet likable guy who can charm women and flip off men in the same sentence and be eloquent about it— into a Jason Bourne plot. Now, I like Eisenberg and his style of humor, and so for the most part I liked this movie. It’s held back only by a story that isn’t good enough for its two main characters.
AMERICAN ULTRA stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as a young couple in love, seemingly held back from getting anywhere in life because Eisenberg’s character is a stoner who spends most of his life getting high, but Stewart’s character loves him all the same.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a small grocery store and that’s about as good as it gets for him. He does have a beautiful girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) who loves him to a fault, and she seems content and happy to love him just the way he is. Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, but he never seems to find the right time or place. He also spends his free time doodling, sketching and writing a comic about a superhero monkey.
And that’s his life, until one day two men show up at his store and try to kill him, but before they do, he jumps into assassin mode and quickly makes short work of them. Confused and frightened, he calls Phoebe, and she rushes to his aid, only to be arrested with him once the police arrive at the scene. But their time in a jail cell is short-lived as more hitmen show up and storm the police station, wiping out everyone except for Mike and Phoebe who manage to escape once again.
While Mike has no idea what is going on or why he can suddenly morph into a deadly assassin— he fears he’s a robot— we the audience do know because we’ve already met the hot shot CIA department head Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) who’s decided that Mike is a liability to the agency and must be eliminated, a decision which doesn’t sit well with Mike’s handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). Feeling responsible for Mike, since she’s the woman behind the program which created him, Victoria decides to cross her boss and help Mike elude the CIA assassins assigned to eliminate him.
The rest of the movie follows Mike and Phoebe’s efforts to evade their killers while Mike tries to learn who he is and why he is a killing machine.
The best part of AMERICAN ULTRA is the performances by the two leads, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. They work really well together, and they are very believable as young lovers caught in a deadly situation.
If you don’t like Eisenberg and his brand of humor, you might not enjoy him as much as I did, but I found him funny throughout. Of course, we’ve seen him do this same shtick in films like ZOMBIELAND and NOW YOU SEE ME (2013), but I like it. He’s also believable when he breaks into assassin mode. As Mike Howell, he’s basically Jason Bourne with a conscience and a sense of humor.
Kristen Stewart is also excellent as Phoebe. This is the second film in a row in which she impressed me, as I saw her in the Julianne Moore Oscar winning movie STILL ALICE (2014) on Blu-ray recently, where she played Moore’s daughter. I’m just very happy she’s finally done with the TWILIGHT movies. She’s so much better when she’s not in those films.
I really enjoyed her here, as she really nails the role of a woman so in love with a guy that she could give a care about his shortcomings. It was a nice performance to watch, and an easy character to like. I think of all us would like to have someone like that in our lives, someone who stands by us no matter what. Stewart also enjoys some memorable comic moments, like when she chastises Mike for some bone-headed moves like pointing out to the man chasing them that he dropped his gun, and also for stopping when one of the assassins pursuing them called his name.
But the high praise for AMERICAN ULTRA stops here, because other than Eisenberg and Stewart, the rest of the film just isn’t as good. Mind you, it’s not bad, but it’s definitely several notches below where it should be.
For starters, the single biggest thing holding AMERICAN ULTRA back is its story, which unlike the character of Mike Howell, isn’t creative or imaginative. Mike Howell realizes he’s secretly an assassin, but doesn’t know how or why, and there are dangerous people trying to kill him while he tries to find answers to his situation. This is basically the same plot as THE BOURNE IDENTITY.
But at least the plot in THE BOURNE IDENTITY was solid. Here, the answers to Mike’s questions make little sense. The reason that Mike is being hunted is because CIA agent Adrian Yates played by Topher Grace has decided on his own that Mike is a liability, based only on the fact that Mike is supposed to remain in town yet he constantly tries to leave. But trying and doing are two separate things, and Mike never leaves, so I don’t see the problem. Anyway Yates basically sends in an entire military unit when his first assassins fail, in effect blowing up whole sections of the town. He eventually has to quarantine the entire place and come up with a cover story about a pandemic to satisfy the media and the public. So much for a quiet covert operation. The whole thing just isn’t credible, and Yates comes off as a complete moron.
It’s as if writer Max Landis, who wrote the screenplay, decided to put Jesse Eisenberg into a Bourne-style plot without coming up with a credible storyline. Landis also wrote the screenplay for the science fiction film CHRONICLE (2012), a film that was more of a complete package than AMERICAN ULTRA.
One of the reasons AMERICAN ULTRA isn’t a complete package is the story never moves beyond Mike trying to learn his true identity. The film plays like an origin story, as it simply tells the story of how Mike came to be an assassin. Forget the origin story already! How about just throwing these two interesting lead characters into an original creative plot? It would have been much more exciting watching Eisenberg and Stewart using their talents to do something other than just run away from hit men.
Director Nima Nourizadeh, who also directed the comedy PROJECT X (2012), a film I didn’t like at all, fares better here with AMERICAN ULTRA, although that’s not saying much. The film is slick and nicely paced, and the action scenes all decent, but things never go as far as they should. For example, ZOMBIELAND had a crazy frenetic visual style that matched Eisenberg’s humor, with words on the screen and other over-the-top touches. None of that kind of thing is present here in AMERICAN ULTRA. For a film like this it’s all rather subdued.
It tries to get violent and earn its R rating, and so there is plenty of blood spilled when bad guys are shot and stabbed, but it’s the type of blood that is CGI-created and exceedingly fake-looking. It’s reaching the point where the bloodless violence in PG-13 films is starting to be more effective because the blood shown in these R rated movies looks like it belongs in a cartoon. Go figure.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well as Eisenberg and Stewart either. Topher Grace plays CIA agent turned villain Adrian Yates so over-the-top he’s laughable, and not in a good way. He’s about as effective a villain as Loki in the Marvel movies. Like Loki, he’s just not on the same level as the heroes which he’s trying to defeat.
While Connie Britton does a nice job as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter who’s sympathetic to Mike’s situation and risks her life and career to help him, she’s still stuck in a ridiculous storyline that is not very believable. I just never bought what the CIA was doing in this movie. Sending in a lone sniper or assassin, yeah, I could buy that, but the military? Of course, Lasseter says pretty much the same thing, which goes back to my point that Yates is a buffoon and an inferior villain not worthy of our main characters’ time.
Bill Pullman shows up near the end as the gruff CIA head honcho who arrives to clean up the entire mess, but like the rest of the CIA plot in this one, he’s over-the-top and pretty much a caricature, and his presence in this movie does little to help it other than to reinforce its poor choice of storytelling.
Walton Goggins is on hand as one of the assassins, a killer named Laugher, because he laughs all the time, and he’s not bad, but we’ve seen him do this sort of thing before, and he’s been better at it, in films like DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and MACHETE KILLS (2013). For the record, Goggins was also in THE BOURNE IDENTITY.
John Leguizamo plays Mike’s drug supplier Rose, and he’s good for a few laughs, although the role never rises above cliché. And I thought Stuart Greer was quite good as Sheriff Watts, a character grounded in reality— unlike the CIA folks in this one— who seems to genuinely care for Mike even as he tries to keep him off the streets and in a jail cell.
AMERICAN ULTRA is a one joke move. Let’s put Jesse Eisenberg into a BOURNE style plot and see what happens. Fortunately, it’s a good joke, and Eisenberg is up to the task. He also receives outstanding support from co-star Kristen Stewart who’s every bit his equal in this movie. Unfortunately, they’re about it, as the rest of the film never quite matches what they bring to the table.
Eisenberg and Stewart play two compelling, enjoyable, and oftentimes humorous characters who deserve to be in a better movie, and if this one does well, perhaps they’ll have their chance in a sequel. I’d be happy to see them again. It’s just too bad that the “better movie” didn’t happen the first time.
How much you like this one probably depends on how much you like Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I find myself liking them quite a bit these days, and they are the main reason I liked AMERICAN ULTRA.