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Review: American Ultra (2015)

American Ultra (2015)

Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh

Premise: A stoner and his girlfriend (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart) are targeted for assassination by the CIA.

What Works: If American Ultra is to be praised for anything it has to be the film’s wackiness. The movie marketplace is flooded with action pictures that are generally led by stoic supermen who lash out in expertly choreographed fight sequences. In American Ultra, a stoner is unexpectedly attacked by government agents and his muscle memory kicks in, revealing that he possesses hand-to-hand combat skills that he didn’t know he had. This leads to a rediscovery of his true identity involving a secret government training program. The premise is remarkably similar to the opening of The Bourne Identity but American Ultra takes the assassin formula in a bizarre direction. Jesse Eisenberg’s character is a meek and directionless drug user, far from James Bond or Jason Bourne, and he is paired with a girlfriend played by Kristen Stewart. The relationship between Eisenberg and Stewart generally works and is frequently the best element of the movie. The supporting cast is full of unusual characters such as a drug dealer played by John Leguizamo, an assassin played by Walter Goggins, and a CIA executive played by Topher Grace. These strange characters give the movie a lot of color that is quite different from the standard spy-on-the-run fare.

What Doesn’t: As a concept, American Ultra seems like it was a deliberate attempt to cross The Bourne Identity with Pineapple Express. That combination might have been fun if it were done in a way that actually played on the absurd contrasts of action movies and stoner comedies but the filmmakers of American Ultra never demonstrate a handle on what kind of movie they were trying to make. The film has been marketed with an emphasis on the drug elements but substance use and drug culture do not figure into the movie in a meaningful way. Something important to understand about drug related movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that the drug use puts the characters into a frame of mind that allows them to experience the world in a different way. The drug use of American Ultra is incidental. The illicit substances don’t do anything for the characters nor do they impact the reality of the story. Placing chemically-influenced characters in the middle of an action film is ripe with potential and it ought to change the way that the violence is presented. But instead the action sequences of American Ultra are just average. The action becomes a serious problem for this film. For one, the sequences aren’t done very well. The set pieces do not have any energy or ferocity but the fights and shootouts are frequently violent in a bloody way that isn’t a whole lot of fun. That creates another problem for this movie: it offsets and spoils the attempts at humor. If American Ultra is supposed to be a comedy—and that itself is debatable—it isn’t very funny. The tone is quirky and Eisenberg and Stewart have some funny lines but there is nothing in the movie resembling a joke. The story of American Ultra is nearly incoherent and not in a psychedelic way like Head. Why the CIA would want to go through the trouble of killing this innocuous stoner—and then do so in a loud and sloppy operation—makes no sense. The filmmakers withhold this information from the audience and when the agency’s motive is finally revealed it’s a letdown. Despite how violent this picture is, American Ultra is really boring. The story is so random that there is never anything at stake and the story is so shapeless that it isn’t working toward an ending.

Bottom Line: American Ultra is an unusual movie but it’s no good being weird at the cost of a coherent story. This movie has gasps of whimsy but in between are long stretches of boredom.

Episode: #558 (September 6, 2015)