Friday, September 4, 2015
AMERICAN ULTRA Does Entertainingly Hyperactive Acid-Trip Action/Comedy
AMERICAN ULTRA Review:
- We've seen the basic set-up to American Ultra done before - a thoroughly-average guy finds out that he was secretly meant to be a kick-ass superspy - chaos and comedy ensue. But ULTRA has enough that's unique about it - including a legitimately involving central romance - that it stands out from the pack. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) gives the movie a frenetic pace that reminded me of similarly in-your-face action films like Kick-Ass. And writer Max Landis gives the film lots of personality, crafting a zippy script full of smart, quippy dialogue and plenty of twists and turns. AMERICAN ULTRA is the sort of new-school, genre-bending, over-the-top action/comedy hybrid that many mainstream critics are prone to dismiss. But if you're down with its insanity and stoned-out humor, there's a lot to like about this one.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike - a stoner who lives in a small town and seems stuck in a rut. He works at a dingy convenience store. He draws a comic book but can't bring himself to do anything with it or show his work to anyone. And he can't bring himself to leave. The one good thing he has going is his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Phoebe is hyper-tolerant of Mike's quirks and neuroses, and seems to compliment him in all the best ways. While she seems to be a similar brand of stoner-slacker as compared to Mike, Phoebe also seems to have a little more ambition, a little more vision, a little more fire inside her. She is, basically, what Mike needs. But tellingly, in an early scene, Mike wonders if he is in fact holding her back.
What Mike doesn't realize is that a lot of his existential issues have literal reasons for being. He can't leave his small town because the government doesn't want to. He is holding Phoebe back, because ... well, I won't spoil it. But what does soon become clear is that Mike's entire existence is one big lie. He isn't just some guy. He's a tossed-away government experiment - a would-be super-spy who is programmed to be an unstoppable combatant. When the program he was a part of was shut down, Mike's programming was "turned off," and his memories erased. Because of the mercy of his government handler, Victoria (Connie Britton), he was spared from the scrap heap and allowed to live a relatively quiet life, unaware of his true nature. But now, a new hotshot CIA official (played with great smarminess by Topher Grace) is out to exterminate remnants of the old program, and he has his sights set on Mike. Mike - and by extension Phoebe - now find themselves caught in a high-level power struggle. Only Mike's re-activated super-spy skills stand between them and a hail of government-issue bullets.
As you can probably start to sense, the cast here is fantastic. I'd forgotten going in how great Eisenberg and Stewart were together in the underrated Adventureland. Quickly though, I was reminded that the two have a great chemistry. The banter between them is funny and fast, but there's also a legit emotional core to their relationship that's actually affecting. Both actors tend to take their knocks from fans and the press, but both are perfectly suited for these parts. They are backed up by a strong turn from the always-great Britton, who manages to bring some gravitas to the movie's largely light-on-its feet tone.
That said, a lot of the real fun comes from the movie's rogues gallery of villains. Topher Grace is just wonderfully hate-able here, the kind of villain whose ass you can't wait to see get handed to him. Also great is, unsurprisingly, Walton Goggins. Fans of Justified saw Goggins embody one of the all-time great TV villains in Boyd Crowder. Here, he plays an even more unhinged character - the Joker-esque assassin known as Laugher. Since I've always thought Goggins would make a great Joker, it's a treat to see him play a true wild card. But what's even better is that the movie reveals a somewhat tragic backstory for Laugher that makes him more than just a kewl antagonist. Additionally, lots of welcome faces show up as part of the supporting cast. Tony Hale as Britton's conflicted colleague. John Leguizamo as Mike's wildcard dealer. Bill Pullman (!) as a government heavy. It's a very loaded cast - and seeing all these great actors bounce off of one another is a lot of fun.
The characters are given some really snappy dialogue thanks to Landis' script. There's no lack of energy in the film, and the fast-moving plot and always-crackling dialogue is a big part of that. Nourizadeh's direction, like I said, is of the Matthew Vaughan school of frenetic action and comic-book-style pacing. And that suits the over-the-top violence and physics-defying action scenes just fine.
If I have any complaint about AMERICAN ULTRA, it's only that it feels, at times, less like a complete film and more like a really solid TV pilot. The story takes us to a point where it feels like things are still just ramping up for our main characters. And in a world where a sequel may not be likely, there is a slight feeling of incompleteness. The real novelty of this story might have been in future chapters, as the relationship between Mike and Phoebe becomes more fully-explored. As is, what makes the movie most stand-out are the moments that spotlight the unique relationship between its two unlikely heroes. The finding-out-you're-secretly-a-spy stuff has been done. But putting all of that in the context of a stoner love story has not. I really like the way that the film provides sci-fi logic to explain the common feelings of going-nowhere, no-future angst that accompany the average quarterlife crisis. But it also sort of feels like Chapter 1 of that exploration - the origin story, sans the first real mission. The TV show Chuck covered some similar ground. But where Chuck had the trappings of a well-meaning, heart-filled sitcom, AMERICAN ULTRA is its acid-dropping, burn-out, grindhouse cousin. If that sounds like your cup of team (it definitely is mine), then give some love to this film - a much-needed original action film in a cinematic landscape overcrowded with rehashed concepts and cash-ins.
My Grade: B+