American Ultra

2015-10-09 10:38

What it's about:

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) seems to be your average twenty-something stoner, living a fairly ordinary life as an aspiring cartoonist stuck in a dead end convenience-store job but with a loving girlfriend at his side every step of the way. As it turns out though, Mike is not who or what he seems as he suddenly finds himself the target of the C.I.A. – but, lucky for him, he is also armed with a set of deadly skills; the origins of which, though, are a total mystery to him.

What we thought:

With its not entirely original but still very promising premise, you would be forgiven for thinking that American Ultra would be, at the very least, a fun, funny thrill ride that makes good use of its quite idiosyncratic cast. Sadly, it's something of a misfire that has its share of decent moments but is mostly a curious mess of a movie that can't quite decide whether it's a relatively serious high-concept espionage thriller or a goofy action comedy. Inevitably, it ends up being neither; making for a mercifully brief but quite frustrating ninety-four minutes.

Written by Max Landis whose very solid debut with Chronicle always somewhat counteracted his occasionally grating public persona as a bit of a geek know-it-all, stumbles badly here with a script that comes across as surprisingly uncertain of itself, filled with two-dimensional characters and leaden, unfunny jokes. Worse, it all feels unnecessarily mean-spirited and joyless for something that really should play out like a light and funny genre picture.

But then, however bad Landis' script may be, it's done no favours whatsoever by being directed by Nima Nourazideh, whose debut feature Project X easily ranks as one of the most obnoxious, vile and worthless films to come out this century. American Ultra is incomparably better than that hateful piece of crap, of course – nothing short of getting smacked in the face with a sledgehammer could possibly be worse – but that same ugliness and scatter shot filmmaking does peak through during the film's weakest moments.

What's really surprising is that the one thing that actually saves the film is Kristen Stewart as our hero's devoted girlfriend and the on-screen chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart who imbue their characters and their relationship with a warmth and a tenderness that I'm not really sure would have been there otherwise. Indeed, had it just been Eisenberg himself up there, his odd, standoffish prickliness - which feels like an unintended leftover from the Social Network - may well have overwhelmed his character, but Stewart keeps him grounded and sympathetic throughout. She gets a lot of flack – often from me and often deservedly – for some of her more notorious non-performances in the past but Kristen Stewart once again proves here that if she's cast correctly, she can actually be pretty damn good.

Would that I can say the same of the rest of the generally very good cast. Connie Britton is fine as Mike's earnest C.I.A. handler but she isn't really given that much to work with here. Tony Hale, on the other hand, is unquestionably a brilliant comic performer, as he has proven time and time again with his work on Veep and Arrested Development, but he flounders here by being stuck with a character that is entirely emblematic of the film's tonal wobbliness. Is his loyal but meek C.I.A. desk jockey supposed to be funny or just kind of seriously sad? I still have no idea.

And then there's Topher Grace. I've long been a fan of the guy since he was the funniest of the kids on That 70s Show, but his film career has seldom delivered on the promise of his early work. Sadly, his role here as the film's chief baddie is by far his worst yet. Grace has many virtues as a screen presence and actor but one of those is decidedly not a power-mad, cartoonishly over-the-top C.I.A-chief-gone-rogue. And, again, the character itself seems to be far more broadly comic than just about anything else in the film. Or maybe he's supposed to be menacing? By this point it's seriously hard to keep track.

Read more on:    jesse eisenberg  |  kristen stewart  |  movies

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