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September 3, 2015
Written by Max Landis, who so effortlessly subverted the teenage angst and superhero genres with Chronicle (2012), American Ultra tries valiantly to juggle even more themes and genres, but to far less satisfying effect, giving the impression you’re seeing ten different films squashed into one.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner loser who suffers panic attacks whenever he tries to leave town. He wants to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), but can never find the right time. What he doesn’t realise, is that he’s a CIA trained operative, experimented on to become a Bourne-like killing machine. Now they want to put him down.
Director Nima Nourizadeh doesn’t shy away from the obvious Jason Bourne riff, using the whole raft of Paul Greengrass’ tricks: flashbacks, shouting CIA agents giving orders in front of huge operational screens, rogue agents with morals. And maybe, if the film fully committed to this premise it would have been a lot better.
But Bourne is just one ingredient in this overflowing cauldron of bubbling ideas.
For the first fifteen minutes, there’s a definite indie vibe, with Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart effortlessly falling into the same easy chemistry which made Adventureland (2009) such a great film. However, after Mike kills the first two agents, the film veers wildly into Matthew Vaughn-lite action territory. From that point onward, American Ultra pretty much picks and chooses whichever style suits each scene best, creating a maddeningly patchwork film where ideas and themes are dropped and picked up with idle abandon.
Case in point: At a certain moment in the film, Mike is a having a rather affecting existential crisis, scared and confused in a way Bourne never was. The next minute, before this can be properly developed, he’s engaged in a broad and over-the-top confrontation with John Leguizamo’s drug dealer, Rose. Taken as individual scenes, there’s not a whole lot wrong, but put them all together and you end up with a hormonal and schizophrenic mess.
Fortunately, in its two leads, American Ultra has an ace in the hole. Jesse Eisenberg, a refreshingly unorthodox action hero, gives Mike some much needed insecurity and pathos, making him a far more vulnerable and sympathetic protagonist than the material really deserves. Similarly, Kristen Stewart finally brings her A-game indie work to blockbuster season, her relationship with Mike just about preventing the entire film from bursting at the seams as Nourizadeh and Landis stretch the concept beyond its means.
Less forgivable, is how Nourizadeh mistreats his supporting cast. Walton Goggins is one of the great actors currently working, and his treatment as a laughing cliché of craziness is astonishingly poor directing. Similarly, watching the likes of Connie Britton being given scraps to work off is a deep disservice. Only Topher Grace is allowed to shine, clearly relishing his cheese ball of a role, swearing all over the place and admirably delivering long, exposition-filled speeches packed with clichéd jargon.
It’s unclear what American Ultra is trying to be ultimately. Despite the strong advertising campaign, a character who smokes weed does not immediately make it a stoner film. Nor is it as manic as it thinks itself to be.
The majority of the time the action is mundane, only for brief spurts of bizarre action like Mike using a frying pan to bounce a bullet off to come along and unsettle the tone.
At its heart, American Ultra is a love story, but it tries on so many different outfits there is a definite sense of a missed opportunity, of potential unfulfilled.
You won’t have a bad time watching it, thanks mainly to Eisenberg and Stewart, but you will almost certainly come out with a deep sense of disappointment at what could have been under more assured leadership.
American Ultra is released in UK cinemas on September 4th