There’s a scene toward the beginning of American Ultra, the new film that once again pairs Jesse Eisenberg with Kristen Stewart, when Eisenberg’s Mike Howell and Stewart’s Phoebe Larson are sitting on the hood of a car in a field, smoking pot and watching the authorities clean up an accident. Mike goes seriously deep as he compares his life with Phoebe as that of a tree stopping a car in its tracks. In essence, he feels he’s a tree, stuck forever in one place, while Phoebe’s the car, and he’s somehow kept her from ever moving on. The scene is a very quiet look into the mind of a man who feels so deeply rooted in an existence of inactivity that he has anxiety attacks when he even attempts to leave the town border. The scene is so well-acted, and incredibly written that it almost spoils the rest of the film, which can’t seem to ever live up to that one five minute clip.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of American Ultra when I first saw the trailer. I’ve never been at all interested in watching any film that includes the usage of marijuana as a main story thread, but when the trailer’s focus turned to promote the edgy Jason Bourne-esque story thread of Mike being some sort of trained assassin or military experiment, it gave me enough reason to give it a chance. It turns out that although the use of pot is certainly a focus in the first part of the movie, it plays as simply a part of who these characters are rather than focusing on that aspect of their personalities as a main plot point to the story. Eisenberg does a terrific job digging much deeper than just another one-dimensional pot head who gets into some type of shenanigans because of his drug use. In fact, once the action starts, there’s hardly any use of drugs at all, as the story turns to focus on the CIA’s hunt for this supposedly exceptional killer.
But this is also where the movie runs a bit off the rails. The film can basically be torn into two separate halves:
Mike and Eric’s Love Story: Surrounded by an extremely violent plot that finds out heroes running, hiding and fighting for their lives is an interesting little love story between Mike and Phoebe. Eisenberg and Stewart work incredibly well together, pulling off a delightful chemistry that helps us believe the sincerity of their actions. Writer Max Landis paints an intelligent portrait of two very flawed characters who want so much more, but are unwilling to go after it because of a past that can’t be explained (on more than one level). One of the most perfectly captured scenes in the film happens after Mike, having been unknowingly “activated” by his old CIA handler (Connie Britton), kills a couple of hitmen with nothing more than a spoon. Mike’s reaction, both right after the incident and after Phoebe arrives at the scene, are both funny and genuine. I will say the twists involved in the relationship are pretty standard, but it’s in the way Eisenberg plays the character that makes it captivating.
The CIA Hunt and Kill Story: The second half of the film seems to have been written by a completely different person altogether and then thrown in because they didn’t have enough material to fill a full 90 minutes. Topher Grace plays an arrogant CIA honcho who discovers (after how much time?) the whereabouts of Mike and aims to destroy him and the project he represents. In his way is Britton’s Victoria Lasseter, who has a soft-spot for Mike and his abilities. There’s no doubt Grace and Britton are talented actors — when they want to be. Here, they seem to be going through the motions without caring much for anything but getting in, getting out and getting paid. This attitude doesn’t just come across in their presentations, but it accentuates the disappointing dialogue and poorly-crafted characters. I couldn’t help but cringe whenever the film left Mike and Phoebe to focus in on them.
These differences in these two halves highlight the wavering tone of the film as well. On one level, it wants to be (and for the most part, is) a smart, thoughtful action film that connects on various levels, whether that be fear, love, conspiracy or anxiety. On the other hand, it wants to be a pseudo-parody, attempting to milk laughs by turning the “scary” men-in-black into fumbling fools that are more interested in their egos than they are the lives of innocent civilians. By doing so, it weakens the villains to the point of turning them into nothing more than robotic cartoons, eliminating the threat to Mike in such a way that we know they’ll never win. It’s set up early on that Mike, when completely active, is an unbeatable opponent, but by pitting him against such inept foes, there’s no real stakes, which makes the battles a little boring.
That said, the action sequences were still well choreographed. There are a couple of moments when the camera and editing get in the way of the action a little, where it is hard to tell what’s going on, but for the most part, each step is done with orchestrated perfection. The final battle, which occurs in a grocery store is especially thrilling, as the first half is filmed in what seems to be one smooth shot following Mike as he takes down his opponents with nothing more than items he picks up off the shelves. Denzel Washington tried the same thing in The Equalizer last year (substituting a hardware store for the grocery store), but Ultra has so much more energy and enthusiasm, thus making it much more fun to watch.
To round it all out, there are a couple of good turns by John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins and Bill Pullman (that’s Pullman, not Paxton) in supporting roles that I wish would have lasted longer than they did. If Britton and Grace had given as much commitment to the script as these side characters, the CIA half of the film may have been raised to match the bar Eisnberg and Stewart set early on in the film. I don’t know if it would have helped, but perhaps they just needed a little hit to help give them something more to care about.
My Grade: B+
Next week, new movies include We Are Your Friends, No Escape and War Room. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.