American Ultra deals with the long-term ramifications of the CIA's earlier brainwashing programs that they were hoping would 'activate' legions of super soldier sleeper agents on a moments notice. The concept itself is actually not that far from the truth either, taking place mostly throughout the Cold War, clandestinely of course. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is the only successful agent to have made it through the program, only who is essentially his guardian angel, shut the program down and gave him a life free from control, albeit a pretty provincial and indolent one.
The perpetually stoned and consistently (and distractingly) unkempt Mike, who's also constantly struggling with the debilitating anxiety he faces on a daily basis, finds solace in the love of his life, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). Together they manage to carve out some sort of meager existence for themselves in small-town USA, Phoebe as some sort of bail bondsman and Mike as a grocery clerk with dreams of his cartoon, Apollo Ape. Everything's going well-enough for the lovelorn couple until the ambitious and perfidious desk jockey Yates (Topher Grace) decides he wants to eliminate all the old assets in America with his own personal army of mentally unbalanced 'tough guys'. After Mike has his 'skills' activated by his guardian angel when she finds out that Mike has been targeted for extermination, well then, let the games begin.
American Ultra is the second movie directed by Nima Nourizadeh, the first being Project X and thankfully he's toned down almost all of the shaky cam to capture some pretty unique, fluid and shockingly brutal action sequences. That's high praise coming from me because I'm constantly complaining about the shitty action sequences that pollute most action movies nowadays. My only real complaint regarding the action is, I wanted more of it. The action is sparse and the 'tools' he uses throughout the movie are all revealed at the start, so you kinda know what to expect at certain points in the movie. I don't know why action movies feel the need to start with the end and then go back to the start, especially when it serves no purpose whatsoever. John Wick was another big offender of this, it needlessly reveals too much of the movie. Jesse surprisingly handled his action sequences with aplomb, as he's beaten almost beyond recognition throughout the movie, the man takes some serious damage, he gets fucked up.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart once again share good chemistry together, reuniting from their old Adventureland days, even if their relationship did seem more contrived this time around. American Ultra is also populated by a surprisingly strong supporting cast, John Leguizamo in another memorable, yet largely thankless role. Topher Grace gets to have a lot of fun as the 'love to hate him' antagonist of the movie. I was surprised to see Walton Goggins appear, I didn't even know he was in it, but he always does great work. Even Bill Pullman made a couple of appearances, looking more commanding than ever, he made me look forward to Independence Day 2 that much more. The visuals are playful at times, definitely a bit of a trip, but there's a nice juxtaposition between the gnarly fluorescent lighting and the dank and grimy visuals that make up most of the movie.
Even though I mostly enjoyed and even admired the audacity of certain parts of American Ultra, it was extremely predictable, sometimes painfully so. I could never shake the feeling that American Ultra was essentially just a pastiche of a lot of other movies either, it's like the cinematic equivalent of one of those quilts that everybody contributes a patch to. From the stylized action of Kick Ass, to the brevity of the action of True Romance, to the comedy of Pineapple Express, to the basic plot from Salt, to the concept of the Bourne movies, I could go on and on, but won't, and that's essentially American Ultra in a nutshell. There's some groovy action sequences reminiscent of Kick Ass in there, some funny humor, some memorable characters, but the melodramatic elements didn't really get me going, they seemed more banal and forced than genuine. Still, I had a good enough time watching it for what it was, even though it could have been much better than a simple 'stoner-Bourne' riff type movie.
Written by - The Sentry - 12/09/2015