American Ultra – 2015

Director Nima Nourizadeh
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
Screenplay Max Landis

One of the least appealing aspects about Pulp Fiction is the way Tarantino cuts the legs off the ending about halfway through the film. Seeing that Vincent and Marsellus arrive in tact and uninjured from their time at the diner, there is no tension later when Ringo has the gun pointed in his face. It wastes a magnificent speech and, quite likely, Samuel L. Jackson’s best shot at getting an Oscar. American Ultra does the very same thing with its opening shot.

Before we get to that though, let’s talk about the “stars.” Let’s be frank, too. Eisenberg and Stewart are difficult to like. Stewart is easy to put in this category. Warranted or not, she’s lost more than she’s gained as the world discovered her. Eisenberg enjoyed a career of low expectations riding along in the ditch until The Social Network placed him on another level. Then this past summer at Comic Con, he compared adulation of people who dress up in costumes while cheering for their heroes who dress up in costumes in movies to “probably some kind of genocide.” This may have had an effect on the box office receipts. You have to get butts in the seats, no matter what your movie is about, before expectations can be raised. Or dashed by the end of the opening credits.

So what happens at the beginning of the film? Well, for one, we know that Eisenberg’s Mike Howell is a little beat up, but he is alive. Why is this? Don’t worry, they are just about to rewind much of the film before your eyes so none of the upcoming scenes are really all that surprising. Bummer. Why is this scene here? So we can hear some annoying inner monologue that gives impressions that won’t be followed up when the movie moves forward is my nearest guess. The viewer gains nothing from this “trick” and the movie loses its effectiveness.

Back at the beginning, where this film should have started, we have Mike and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) almost making it on a vacation to Hawaii. Mike is unable to actually board the plane, due to a phobia that makes him puke uncomfortably close to an airplane toilet. Like, right inside of the thing. It’s like he’s making out with it. This elicits more of a phobic response for me than walking aboard a plane ever could.

On their way back, they are accosted by local law enforcement, to remind the viewer in the most Footloose way possible that this is a small town and cops don’t like folks who do drugs all the time. Inexplicably, he is back at work at the local grocery mart the next day. The only person working there. Who would have been there if he had gone to Hawaii? This movie doesn’t bother to ask.

All of this success with the drugs and the low wage jobs (Phoebe works at a bail bonds office) brings Mike to a spot where he feels he should ask Phoebe to marry him. He’s even saved up for a cheap ring. Phoebe, acting as if she is compelled to love Mike, even if they amount to nothing in the town of Liman, West Virginia. Hawaii was going to be his big moment to ask her. Since that didn’t happen, we get to see him ponder the moment throughout the rest of the story.

Meanwhile back at Langley in the CIA headquarters, Agent Lasseter (Britton) gets an anonymous notification that the last agents of her failed “Ultra” program is about to be killed by some new agent program, called Tough Guy. I think the phrasing is intended to sound ironic. We know that this last agent is Mike, but he does not. This again is unfortunate, from a storytelling perspective. We end up waiting for Mike to show what we already expect. The viewer is waiting instead of surprised.

Quite obviously Mike has to survive numerous attempts on his life. These Tough Guys would more appropriately be called Psychotic agents of multiple genders. There are definitely men, I think there are women, and a couple of Caitlyn Jenners in there, too. The first and last one we see is Goggins. Walton Goggins has reached that stage where he no longer dies for being crazy. We can thank both Justified and Sons of Anarchy for this. Instead, he just gets beaten until he’s nearly dead because he is crazy, and kind of adorable.

There are some good moments in the next hour, mostly brought on by the acting of Eisenberg, Stewart and Britton. The rest of the cast fit right within the confines of caricatures we’ve become comfortable with seeing them. Topher Grace, fire your agent. Everything you do is the bad guy from Spider-Man 3. It’s not surprising to see you hide behind people after talking tough.

American Ultra is the kind of film where some elements work so well, one cannot help but spend a majority of the time viewing the film as they would have re-written it in their head. It has some things going for it. Essentially a comedic version of The Bourne Identity. That it ultimately fails to deliver could be the fault of Landis, but when one considers Nourizadeh’s last film was Project-X, that the movie is even this good seems like a kind of victory.

(*** out of *****)

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