Reviews already take an unjustified amount of time to get to the point nowadays, so I’m going to skip my usual two paragraph introduction and get right to the crux of this review right here: American Ultra is one weird fucking movie.
Seriously. There’s good movies, there’s bad movies, there’s guilty pleasures… and then there’s American Ultra, a film that is so bizarre that it’s basically its own category. It’s Inherent Vice, if said film was given an overdose of steroids while seriously blazed, and it’s a freak hybrid of a romantic drama, a Winter Soldier-type conspiracy thriller and a Kick-Ass-type action comedy. The weird part is, it works a lot more than it should. It is in no shape or form consistent, and seems to wallow in it for as long as it lasts. One minute of the film will be a tender and romantic moment, and then the next minute, someone gets his insides blasted all over the nearby wall with a shotgun. “Bipolar” would be a generous word to describe just how temperamental this film is. And yet really, if it wasn’t like this, it wouldn’t even be half as enjoyable as it is. The casting is spot-on, the cinematography is excellent and the fight scenes are better-executed than they should be for a film of this kind, and that’s especially surprising considering that the film’s director had previously made the cinematic stomach ache of 2012, Project X.
Warning: Some Spoilers may lie ahead
Exactly how well-made American Ultra is is the real surprise of the experience. In fact, in the first 5 minutes alone, the film does a pretty good job at conveying some actual emotional connect-ability, as we get a look at Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe Larson’s (Kristen Stewart) relationship as a fucked up couple in a small town in Virginia. Hell, even Mike himself, in the opening narration won’t shy away from that, bluntly calling it “a perfect fucked-up couple”. He’s a stoner, invests most of his time writing a sci-fi comic book, and is prone to panic attacks and phobias, which prevents them from taking a proper Hawaiian vacation, where he can propose to her. These first five minutes alone are so beautifully well-executed that it’s enough to make you think you’re about to watch a compelling romantic drama, if the poster and trailer somehow didn’t fool you.
On the side, Mike has a job at a store which he runs, and is practically a ghost town. What he doesn’t know is that the CIA, at this point, is just about to kill him… or that he’s a sleeper agent, who was trained extremely well and can kill someone with as little as a spoon (yes, he actually does do that). Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has issued a death warrant on him, and has sent Victoria Laesseter (Connie Britton) to kill him- and if that fails, he has a squad of “tough guys” (who are really just escaped mental patients) to take him out. And after Laesseter’s initial failed attempt at trying to get Mike to escape, Mike kills two of the tough guys in his parking lot- but is amazed at his sharp wit and seeming ability to pull the next move out of the air. After he calls Phoebe to the store to help him, they both are thrown in the slammer, then attempted attack after attempted attack happens to them throughout the night, with no signs of slowing down- and equally impressive, Mike somehow just knows how to retaliate at these tough guys and escape, especially after he learns bout his past- where he had his memories erased.
That’s probably as much sense as the story will make. The story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but to be fair, that makes perfect sense in the context of just how convoluted the whole situation is to the characters. The film’s impressive action sequences do make up for the rather incoherent storyline- and boy, is it incoherent. The film gets ears-deep in subplots as the film nears its end. That’s not to say the story isn’t good, or the film isn’t funny, because both are false- there’s plenty of strange and dark humour placed throughout, and the story is compelling at times. But thank god for the laughs there are and the action. There aren’t any jokes that are repeated ad nausem to the point where they grow old and stale- not even that “am I a robot” joke that gets repeated in the trailers. They even manage to make a joke about beaver-fucking clever. Who knew? And the action scenes, as if I haven’t emphasized how good they are enough, are raw, brutal and bloody. Pretty much every death in the film is punctuated by a bright red and exaggeratedly large spurt of blood from impact area- at some times, it’s even pretty to look at. And we hear bones crack and raw punching noises abounds too. Never has such brutal fight scenes been this satisfying to watch.
The acting is pretty on-point here as well- save your Kristen Stewart in Twilight jokes, people, because she does a pretty damn good job as Phoebe. She actually emotes and has some funny lines herself, and is a surprisingly good comedy actress. Jesse Eisenberg pretty much plays awkward cute dorky guy number 57 like he always does, but what else should we expect from him? We have until next March to see him as Lex Luthor after all. Topher Grace gives a surprisingly great performance as Yates, and he’s not typically the kind of actor you see pulling off a villainous role. Another high point is Nima Nourizadeh‘s stunning direction- the film is pretty looking as ever, and competently crafted- well-placed slow-motion shots are abounds in the film, and not during just the action scenes too. His unique visual style compliments the dingy and wet aesthetic of this small town in Virginia, and how boring life must be there.
American Ultra is a film that is definitely worth a watch, but be prepared to be confused and not be sure whether you should be laughing or cringing. Its sheer audacity in blacker-than-black comedy and surrealism is definitely what makes it so admirable. Combined with the sheer weirdness, Nima Nourizadeh’s deft direction and fine performances, the movie, while obviously not for everyone, is definitely a film that will have people talking about it, even if it’s not for the reason it hoped.
American Ultra isn’t for everyone, but it’s arguably admirable and well-made enough to gain a cult following.