New Release: American Ultra
In 2015, Nima Nourizadeh released American Ultra, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, and Tony Hale. The film grossed $15.4 million at the box office.
Mike Howell is just an average everyday stoner who works at a convenience store and likes to get high with his girlfriend and leads an unexciting life. However, he’s also a secretly highly-trained and highly dangerous special operative but doesn’t remember. And when a plan to quietly retire him is unleashed, his forgotten programming returns, causing the government to try and stop him for good, even if it means nearly destroying a small town.
While American Ultra is fun in many places, the film just seems very confused at itself, not sure if it wants to be a stoner comedy or a high octane action film. What's more is that it seems to be trying to copy other more successful films in its endeavors.
The stoner elements are where most of the film’s attempt at humor comes from. And there are some humorous moments that do involve stoner logic, like Mike and Phoebe’s conversation about a tree and a car. But for most of the film, the stoner elements just feel like they’re contrived in making it seem like Mike is this normal guy who just likes to get high. And it wouldn’t be so bad had there not been a much better portrayal of a normal guy who enjoys doing so with The Big Lebowski. The main characters in both movies get caught up in a plot that they really had no desire to be in and really just want to be left alone.
But even the second element of the film, where Mike doesn’t know that he’s the result of a secret government program, just seems so forced like it was the result of a brainstorming session to combine unassuming stoner with the exact opposite characterization. However, Mike being so surprised at what he’s able to do, slowly coming to terms with it and then rising to the occasion to become the hero just doesn’t fit, nor does it feel like a natural progression. Again too, audiences have seen this done much better before in the way of the Bourne series and Jason Bourne never made the mistake of alerting someone trying to kill him of a gun a few feet away or saying he’s about to wet himself. Mike is supposed to be the one in the program that worked, but if he’s constantly reverting back to an idiot stoner, then how does that show he was a success? It’s played out like he’s growing back into the conditioning, but that really isn’t the way these things work.
Finally, there’s the showdown in the convenience store, where Mike uses the store’s products to his advantage. And while everything he does looks cool, it feels obvious that a lot of what was done was in an effort to be crazy action without just letting it play out like that. Yet again, this was done much better in a film called The Equalizer, where the main character does the exact same thing. However, the latter film is able to make the sequence more believable and fluid and is much more interesting and appealing because of what the film’s tone elicits. This sequence also has off-putting pacing and cinematography. It's so fast paced and close up that the audience doesn't really have the time or capability to register what keeps happening.
And something has to be said about the mid-film revelation that Phoebe is Mike’s handler. Because it makes no sense in light of the previous events. If she knew that he couldn’t leave the area, then why did she go with the plan to take a vacation to Hawaii and then act angry and annoyed that his “anxiety” stopped him from being able to? Further, she seems legitimately surprised at all the events of the film rather than feigning it like someone who had an idea of what was going on would be doing. Or that could just mean that this film shows that Kristen Stewart actually can act.
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