Imagine a Tarantino movie without the wit and it very well might look like American Ultra.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Last week, this space saw comments about The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the pleasures of moviegoing. Image composition. Music. Beautiful people.
What a difference a week makes.
Saying a movie’s “messed up” when it’s sold as a stoner action comedy could be taken as a compliment. Not so here. Maybe being stoned is a requirement for the comedy to be funny and the action to seem interesting.
Somebody must have called in a lot of favors to get this movie made. Look at the cast. Impressive. Bill Pullman. John Leguizamo. Connie Britton. Topher Grace. Kristen Stewart. Jesse Eisenberg. All put in service of a sophomore director (Project X) and a scribe who’s on some sort of hot streak. That would be Max Landis (yes, son of John Landis), who wrote Chronicle (directed by Josh Trank, whose star has tanked with this summer’s fatuous flop, Fantastic Four). Next up, Landis has Victor Frankenstein coming out for Thanksgiving, seemingly odd timing for the movie starring James McAvoy and Daniel Radcliffe.
A troubled youth on a three strikes program. Stick him in a small town, give him pot to overcome the psychological trauma of his training. Now the CIA wants him dead. There is something in that elevator pitch. But... dude... this is messed up. Seriously.
What the heck is the problem with Mike Howell (Eisenberg)? The kid’s a slacker who works in a convenience story in Liman, W. Virginia, in order to support his pot habit. He has panic attacks which prevent him from doing cool stuff, like going to Hawaii with an eye on proposing to his girlfriend and fellow pothead, Phoebe (Stewart). But he’s also a talented cartoonist with a little creation called Apollo Ape bouncing around in his head.
Mike’s a nobody and yet certain CIA operatives want to wipe him off the planet.
Well, the problem with Mike — actually, with American Ultra — is Landis got the story structure wrong. The story’s twist, such as it is, is revealed far too early, quickly dispelling any mystery surrounding - and interest in - Mike’s situation.
It’s all a convoluted mess about a shelved program that attempted to retrain punks with three misdemeanors. Turns out the intense training started to have psychological impacts on the trainees.
But one trainee, Mike, was deemed a success. A success! Yeah, he’s a pothead. But deep, deep down, Mike’s a skilled killer par excellence.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that’s virtually devoid of any redeeming qualities. American Ultra’s time has come.
Even if taken as a very loose spoof of modern super spy movies — the over-the-top action of ultra popular movies like the Mission: Impossible and Bourne franchises — the movie lacks the underpinnings to stand on its own. With a premise so absurd, it needs something to tie it all together, something like a biting wit, snappy dialogue that makes things click.
Instead, there’s nothing particularly savvy about the humore or insightful about the mayhem. It’s pandemonium that devolves into ultra dopey and ultra violent nonsense.
In the service of wiping Mike off the planet, a number of top CIA assassins nearly destroy the entire town of Liman. Several innocents are killed in the process.
And then there’s a shameful denouement in which there’s a reckoning for all the devastation.
It simply doesn’t add up.
But the movie somehow manages to end on a high note. Uhhh... dude... no pun intended, man.
There’s a (believe it or not) funny joke at the end. Mike’s now in a different situation and he’s confronting a couple heavies. They’re in a room and they’re commenting about the lack of weapons at Mike’s disposal. Mike surveys the room and sees all sorts of weapons in everyday objects. He is, after all, a guy who killed a CIA agent with a spoon earlier in the messed up nonsense that is American Ultra.