Movie Review – American Ultra

EXPECTATIONS: A fun stoner action-comedy akin to Pineapple Express.

REVIEW: Typecasting for an actor can be a blessing or a curse. In the case of actors like Cary Grant, George Clooney or even Seth Rogen, it can be quite beneficial. But for some, it can be a curse, like for Michael Cera. Hence going into the unfairly maligned Jesse Eisenberg. First seeing him in Wes Craven’s Cursed and, of course, Zombieland. But for his movies proceeding the latter, he has, more or less, played the same character over and over with very little diversions like the idiosyncratic The Double and Night Moves. Also suffering from ridicule is Kristen Stewart. Confined and noticeably dreading to be in blockbuster films like the crappy Twilight films and the depressingly boring Snow White and the Huntsman. But after those films, she feels rejuvenated again with one good performance after another and topping her career with Clouds of Sils Maria. But the two have something great between them in a little seen (in my opinion, anyway) film called Adventureland. A fantastic coming-of-age film as well as a good romance, where Eisenberg and Stewart have great chemistry. So when I heard of American Ultra, I thought it was a blockbuster, but it had a small budget and it was written by Chronicle writer Max Landis and it looked like the two leads were having fun in the stoner teaser of the film. So imagine my surprise when I find out that American Ultra is being incorrectly marketed by the trailer and it is more than what I thought it would be.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a stoner who works in a convenience store, occasionally writes stories for comics and has a loving, yet problematic relationship with Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who is also a stoner who works as a bonds-woman. The two have problems due to Mike’s phobias and panic attacks but Phoebe sticks by him for better or worse. Until one night at work, Mike has a talk or two with a mysterious woman (authoritative and paternal Connie Britton) mentioning some code words of some sort, but he doesn’t recognize her or the words she spoke. After the awkward conversation, she leaves and Mike sees two men tampering with his car. As the two men proceed to attack him, Mike subconsciously kills both of them armed with a pot noodle and a spoon. Scared of his capabilities, he calls Phoebe about it for support and the two are sucked in a plot that involves more than they could ever hallucinate imagine, involving FBI agents (annoying as hell Topher Grace, angry Bill Pullman, questionably loyal Tony Hale), drug dealers (over-the-top John Leguizamo), sweeper agents (laughable Walton Goggins, Monique Ganderton) and other paranoia.

There are many surprises that happen in this film which I did not expect to happen. One, the stoner aspect of the film is really minor. It’s almost a non-sequitur of sorts so anyone expecting anything along the lines of Pineapple Express will be disappointed. Another surprise is that the situations in the story are, typically, all exaggerated to entertaining effect but thankfully, the movie commits to its off-kilter logic all the way to its last frame. But the best surprise here is the romance aspect. Showing great chemistry in Adventureland, Eisenberg and Stewart rekindle that chemistry here and it grounds the film nicely, making the audience care for the characters. They make it easy for the audience to get invested, and they share intimacy that pays off fantastically in the climax and earns a poignancy when they question who they are in the world. Unlike Adventureland, where Eisenberg stood out with his genuinely timid charm, Stewart stands out the most with her subtle, endearing and heartfelt performance. Showing more regret and sadness than anger towards Mike, she truly stands alongside her man for better or worse and she also isn’t a damsel in distress and can stand up for herself. She also handles the comedic aspects of the film capably, as she has the best lines of the film, particularly one about alerting people about guns. Eisenberg sure as hell isn’t a slouch, as he plays Mike with a loser charm and we definitely feel his disappointment to not live up to his expectations of being good towards Phoebe. He also plays his action beats really well that we can buy him as a killing machine, especially when the action scenes are sometimes done in one take.

The story is a lot more unpredictable than the usual action norm, thanks to scriptwriter Max Landis, but the problem here is the tone. The logic is consistent but the tone isn’t and it can throw off a lot of people. With exaggerated portrayals from the supporting actors (from John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins and especially from the antagonist, Topher Grace), it can be a bit hard to take the film seriously when it needs the audience to do so. Plus, the scenes outside from the Mike and Phoebe relationship can be a bit jarring at times; sometimes they feel like they belong in another movie. The violence in the action scenes are brutal to watch. I can take the tone switches since I’m inclined to many films of its type, especially from old 90’s Hong Kong films, but for general audiences, it can be a bit taxing. The storytelling is fine for the most part, but some parts lack closure, mainly Mike’s character arc. But the film does end with an opening for a sequel, (the ending can be seen a bit twisted as well when you think about it), so it might be open until then.

For its small budget, the film looks great while the visuals are amiably small-scale (like the town its set in) and the shaky-cam is used effectively to add tension and suspense in the scene. The film also has a hell of a fantastic end credit sequence that features one of the characters that Mike created for his comics. The music compliments the film as well, with well-chosen tracks that add some surrealism and poignancy to the film, particularly in the romantic scenes. So overall, if you are looking for a different type of action film, American Ultra is a good alternative. What it lacks in focus, it makes up for in entertainment and the pairing of Eisenberg and Stewart is again, fantastic.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great lead performances and chemistry

Action scenes are well-executed

The genre mix of action, comedy and romance is entertaining

CONS

Tonal inconsistencies

Some flaws in the storytelling

Some annoying supporting performances

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavel Crawford, Stuart Greer
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenwriter: Max Landis

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