Sometimes films take on heavy concepts: life, death, space, time travel. Other times, they take a simpler approach. Sure, it’s hard to argue that American Ultra is doing anything profound or meaningful, but it’s also hard not to have fun with a movie where the primary question seems to be: What if Jason Bourne was a neurotic pothead?
Following up on the critically-acclaimed found footage film Chronicle, screen writer and Eisner-nominated comics scribe Max Landis is back with another ordinary-guy-becomes-extraordinary trope. American Ultra is the story of convenience store worker Mike, a man who doodles comics in his spare time, has panic attacks when he tries to leave town, and is deeply in love with his incredibly patient girlfriend, Phoebe. Then things get weird and we find out Mike is a government experiment super soldier that has been recently reactivated.
Everything American Ultra does, on paper, is broad and formulaic. It’s a film I actually had fairly low expectations for when I walked into the theater. But the key to the movie’s enjoyable moments are nestled between the movie’s broad strokes – less in the largely-telegraphed plot twists and more in the small ways our protagonists interact with the environment and people around them. Though it may not live up to the promise of young talent found in Chronicle, Landis is certainly faring better here than his Chronicle director Josh Trank’s recent outing in Fantastic Four – a movie ripped to shreds so badly by critics, I almost feel a little bit sorry for it. The writing holds up better in this film than does the directing from Nima Nourizadeh, whose only prior film credit is Project X (prior to that, Nourizadeh directed commercials and music videos).
The real stars of the film are, well, the stars. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart settle back into a comfortable chemistry established back in Adventureland, and I’d argue the chemistry between them is even better here. Stewart’s acting has seemed to mature more since, dropping the frequent lip-biting/hair-tousle affectations from Adventureland for a calmer, quieter demeanor. Eisenberg’s usual super-smart-guy act is gone here, too, in favor of a character racked with guilt over his nervous tendencies. There are also some nice peripheral performances from Connie Britton, Tony Hale, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, and even Bill Pullman, though most of the supporting roles are too small to really have a lasting impact.
As long as you can accept the movie’s stupid premise – which may not be a given for everyone – the most challenging moments of American Ultra are in the action scenes, where firework smoke, shaky cam, and darkness are all used to mask fairly clumsy combat scenes and the presumably frequently-used body doubles. I’m not expecting great action from a film like this, but it feels like something you either commit to doing well or not bother doing at all. The pacing and interspersing of government-related plots within the moments of Mike and Phoebe on the run also felt a bit uneven, with certain scenes feeling incredibly rushed and others taking more time than needed. That said, American Ultra isn’t really a film that overstays its welcome, clocking in at a swift 96 minutes, which is something to appreciate in a sea of movies stretching into the 3 hour mark for no good reason.
If you’re interested in a pristine action film, this probably isn’t for you, but if a Pineapple Express meets Bourne Identity sort of mash-up appeals to you, American Ultra holds up its end of the bargain and a little more.