American Ultra

| November 30, 2015

The cover art of the American Ultra BluRay depicts stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart walking coolly away from an apocalyptic explosion. With the fiery inferno raging behind them, they strut with a sort of casual abandon. Eisenberg has a pair of aviator sunglasses on, despite it clearly being night.  Stewart carries a shotgun, but with a sort of indifferent, who-gives-a-shit mentality.

If you haven’t seen American Ultra this cover will give you the wrong impression regarding its content and tenor. Less a comedy in the vein of Pineapple Express than it is a sadder version of the Bourne trilogy, the film is part parody, part comedy and part depressive drama. Noncommittal to a fault, American Ultra is not an overly successful film. It is an intriguing curiosity however, one that you may continue to mull over after an initial viewing.

American Ultra’s main character is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), someone that seems to invite the label of the stoner/slacker.  A 20-something dude with long stringy hair, a crap job and a deep penchant for bud, he lives a small, unassuming life in Liman, W. Virginia with his long-time girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart). Mike is totally infatuated with Phoebe, and seems content to work at a convenience store while drawing outlandish cartoons of an astronaut monkey. However, he also has a growing awareness of his own limitations, personified in his inability to propose to Phoebe and failure to leave Liman (even on vacation) without experiencing debilitating panic attacks.

Unsurprisingly, the couple’s quiet life is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), who shows up one night and “activates” Mike through a series of code words. As it turns out, Mike is an undercover sleeper agent, born out of Lasseter’s program called “Ultra” and now targeted for termination by her rival Adrian (Topher Grace). This hidden side of Mike explodes through a scene where he is accosted by two hitmen and ends up brutally killing them both. As more hitmen arrive in Liman, Mike and Phoebe are forced to go on the run, resulting in more revelations, not to mention the literal destruction of their small community.

American Ultra is most effective in its earliest sections, which features Nima Nourizadeh evocatively building a sense of place. NOLA-shot, the film has a distinctive look, marked by rotting, boarded-up architecture and cracked, rain-slicked streets. The daily existences of Mike and Phoebe is also strongly-realized. Banal, working class, yet strangely charming, these characters lives feel inherently fragile, their relationship deeply sensitive.

One element the film has working in its favor is Eisenberg’s performance. A powerful actor, although limited in terms of range, Eisenberg’s performance works on all levels. His nebbish earnestness, so potent in films like Zombieland and The Squid and the Whale, is put to beautiful effect here. Additionally, his inhuman coldness  – seen memorably in The Social Network – perfectly fits his character’s vicious command over physical violence.

A major part of the character is his relationship with Stewart’s Phoebe. The film robustly builds out their life they share, yet their chemistry isn’t what you would call overwhelming. It’s difficult to pinpoint why this is, but the fault seems to exist with both Stewart’s performance and Max Landis’s script. Assertive and maternal, Phoebe has all the beginnings of a good character. However, Landis’s script suggests that Phoebe possesses a growing discontent with her relationship, a theme that never gets expanded upon. This is exacerbated by Stewart’s performance, which certainly seems committed, but also can’t fully shake the cold sleepiness that dominated her work in the Twilight series.

Much of what dominates American Ultra though is not careful character interaction, but bombastic action. Despite the film featuring an unconventional action star, its moments of violence are fluid, brutal and effective. Although it’s not clear how much of the work is Eisenberg’s, the blocking, camerawork and editing of the action is quite visceral, with an unbroken tracking shot of a punch up in a grocery store being a clear standout. However, all the action sequences leave an impact, enhanced through a bizarre score that mixes guitar riffing with doo-wop. It also matters that Eisenberg’s Mike faces some truly outrageous villains in the film – such as Walton Goggins’ Laughter – which provide American Ultra with a lunatic, hyperreal energy.

If there is a downside, it’s that qualities like Goggins’ character aren’t fully congruent with the film’s overall ethos. Although positioned as an outrageous stoner-comedy, there is a deep level of sadness in American Ultra. Much of this emerges out of the way that the character of Mike is written and acted. Eisenberg provides the character with a raging sense of betrayal, born out of the realization that nearly everything he believed in has been a lie. This treatment of the character extends onto the supporting parts, where everyone from Britton’s agent to John Leguizamo’s crazed drug dealer seems motivated by fear and desperation. It’s this quality that turns American Ultra into a film that is a far cry from the slick, cool stoner-comedy it was sold as through its promotional art. Additionally, the film treats the effects violence has the human body with startling realism, with Eisenberg’s face looking like a mashed, badly-burned piece of meat by film’s end.

American Ultra never reconciles its contrasting tones. It’s not really funny, barring a few moments that play on Mike’s split personality,  but it also doesn’t have the narrative or thematic heft to function as effective drama. By film’s end (certainly one of the bleakest in a recent “comedy” film) this dual failing becomes explicitly apparent. Viewers won’t know what to think or feel about the film, aside from the fact that satisfaction has alluded them.

About the Author:

Adam Mohrbacher is a freelance film critic and writer who currently lives in Denver, CO.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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