Weed kills. Not you, but others.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), where have a comfortable, lazy, and pot-filled life the rural burbs of West Virginia. However, what Mike doesn’t know is that he was once apart of a covert CIA initiative entitled “the Ultra Program” – something he has no memory of but is going to get a quick reminder of very soon. This all begins when a hot-shot CIA agent (Topher Grace) decides that he needs to get rid of Mike in a way of typing-up loose-ends, but the sympathetic CIA agent (Connie Britton) won’t let that happen as she sees the operation as her own child and it’s up to her to keep it safe and alive. Now, Mike and Phoebe are on the run from the CIA, as they run into all sorts of blood, guts, and violence; most of which Mike is surprisingly able to handle due to certain skills he had in the field, coming back to him. But no matter how many people Mike kills, he still worries for the love of his life, Phoebe, and now that she’s been captured, he’s worried that it may be time for him to call a day and let whatever’s going to happen to him, happen.
American Ultra tries to be so many things at once and is so willing to change between them on a dime, with reckless abandon. At one point, it’s a stoner-comedy about a middle-class dude just trying to get by; at another, it’s about this young, happily-in-love couple also trying to get by; and then, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s this gory action-thriller with CIA agents, conspiracies, and all sorts of illegal activities. While all of these elements sound as fun and as interesting can be, the movie still somehow turns out to be a bit of a slug – something that director Nima Nourizadeh tries so hard to avoid, but in all honesty, just can’t.
But, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t at least occasionally entertained by the effort put on by just about everyone involved.
Some of this can be chalked up to Nourizadeh for not standing down and allowing for his material to stick on the ground without hardly ever having anything to show for it, but a good portion of this can be given to the fact that Max Landis is the one who’s behind the pen and paper on this one. For anybody who knows Landis’ work, they’ll know that a few years ago, he wrote the smart and entertaining Chronicle; a movie that had every bit of animosity standing in its way, but somehow got by on being more than just a superhero movie with a neat gimmick. And watching American Ultra, I got a lot of the same feel from that movie, here; while they’re two different stories altogether, the idea of two young people being thrown into this insane, sometimes horrific situation is still relevant and works, all to a certain extent.
See, even though the movie wants to act as if it has this big, huge, beating heart at the center of all the mayhem and havoc, the movie is, in all honesty, more concerned with the carnage that ensues. There’s no problem with this because, for what it’s worth, all of the violence is as barbaric and as crazy as it needs to be and is, at least, fun to watch. It takes away from the rest of the movie being a bit of a bore and shows that Landis, while a bit sketchy on certain aspects of telling a compelling story, still has bright ideas to use when it comes to writing a tense, but fun action-sequence; something that means a lot more when you see it play out, than it actually sounds coming from a dork such as myself.
But to have a movie that is, altogether, both passionately romantic and horrifically violent, there needs to be a nice divider to between the two. There has to be some sort of break apart between the two story-elements, like in say something like True Romance that’s got a very heartfelt love story in between all of the craziness and gore that spews out from the sometimes convoluted story (although, to be fair, that story is at least a little easier to get the hang of than this). Here, the romance never feels earned and whenever it’s given attention, it more or less feels like it’s taking away from what could have been a lot more of a fun flick.
Still though, there’s something here to watch, which makes it at least a tiny bit better than most of what we’re used to get in the last weekends of August.
And even though the script turns out to be something of a mess, clearly something was working well enough that it attracted such a high-caliber cast as this. Having worked together before on Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart clearly share a nice bit of chemistry between one another and it translates well into the earlier portions of the movie, where it’s mostly all about them and all of the other CIA nonsense is pushed to the side. Then, all that nonsense comes into the main-frame and makes their relationship seem a bit more irrelevant to the central story, and instead, we’re more or less focused on how many people Eisenberg’s character can kill with a frying-pan.
The rest of the cast has got some fine names, too, but even they feel like they’re wasted on some material that still can’t make up its mind. Britton’s character is, as expected, sympathetic and nurturing, as if she just walked off of the set of Friday Night Lights and forgot to change her character; Walton Goggins plays a mentally-challenged killer by the name of Laughter, and it’s as ridiculous as it sounds; Bill Pullman shows up to do his thing; John Leguizamo plays, once again, a drug-dealer, even though in real life, it’s all he ever complains about playing; and even though a lot of people give him a bad rap in general, Topher Grace is pretty great here as the dick-headed CIA agent.
I’ve been reading a lot of the complaints about Grace here saying that he’s, “annoying” and “a dick”, but having seen the film, I can’t understand why this would be a problem to begin with. The whole character’s reason to exist is to be annoying, as well as a dick, because without him, there wouldn’t be much of a story to begin with. Without Grace gracing us with his character’s presence (like that?), we’d still be stuck where we were in the first-act; watching as these two love birds got stoned, talk about trees, start crying and generally, not make any sense.
So, yeah. Thanks, Topher Grace. I’m glad you were around.
Consensus: Dealing with so many plot-elements at once, American Ultra is a jumble, but it’s an interesting one that’s occasionally fun and entertaining to sit by, watch, and remind yourself that it is in fact, late-August and the movies don’t get much better than this.
5.5 / 10