American Ultra: Half baked

If ever there’s a movie that sinks its own ship while still tied to the dock, it’s American Ultra. For the promotion of Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock stipulated that no-one should be admitted to the theatre after the movie had started, to prevent ruining the surprise.

If Hitchcock was alive today, and he’d seen American Ultra, he would no doubt recommend exactly the opposite – to preserve any sense of suspense, one should aim to join the movie about five minutes in.

American Ultra

Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, John Leguizamo

One of the most baffling decisions director Nima Nourizadeh makes in his sophomore effort is to start at the end, then employ a flashback moment which literally flashes every key plot point on the screen before the story starts proper.

In doing so, every drop of suspense is eradicated before the movie even starts, and we’re left with an action comedy thriller without any thrills. To make matters worse, screenwriter Max Landis, following up from the interesting found footage superhero movie Chronicle, also forgets to write any jokes.

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) plays Mike, a meek and anxious stoner type who works a dead-end job in a dead-end town, passing the hours in a dreary cash n’ carry rolling spliffs and working on his comic strip, Apollo Ape. He shares his home and stash of ganja with his gorgeous, improbably understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

Cut to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and it is quickly revealed that Mike is trained killing machine in the mould of Jason Bourne. He’s the pet project of kindly agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), soon to be shut down by her young rival Yates (Toper Grace). When confronted by two of Yates’ “Tough Guy” assets, Mike’s programming kicks into action and he kills his two assailants with little more than a Pot Noodle and a spoon.

The set up should work, if channeling The Bourne Identity via The Big Lebowski, and the film opens well, drawing unexpected poignancy from the details of Mike and Phoebe’s relationship. Once the switch is flipped, however, the film disappears into an unengaging vacuum, a series of ultra-violent set pieces played out in grim, unappealing locations. Thanks to that bizarre opening scene, we know that Mike will survive, and also how he will defeat his numerous and faceless enemies, who only appear on screen long enough to get killed.

The laughs are few and far between, and are largely thanks to Eisenberg’s delivery. Eisenberg is a terrific actor seemingly incapable of a bad performance, and he makes the most of what he is given here, despite being horribly mis-cast. The role feels tailor made for Michael Cera, who made such an impression as the geek with video game fighting skills in Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

American Ultra 1

Stewart is also very good, avoiding the usual cliches of the current era’s ubiquitous Manic Pixie Dreamgirl, transcending the moribund material to etch out a neat sketch of a warm, grounded and loyal person.

Beyond the two leads, American Ultra is a curiously under-populated picture, with the supporting cast stuck in poorly written, one dimensional roles. Briton takes on the Joan Allen role from the Bourne movies without the star quality; Grace overacts obnoxiously, but not in a good way – he’s all talk and no trousers, and offers zero threat. Of Mike’s Tough Guy opponents, only Laugher (Walter Goggins) makes an impression, because he’s the only goon on screen long enough for us to register what he looks like. Bill Pullman shows up to growl a few lines as the Spook’s top boss, then goes home again, and John Leguizamo provides a brief bit of unfunny comic relief as a drug dealer who thinks he’s black.

Action-wise, American Ultra is old hat. The Bourne series is the obvious point of reference, and the hand-to-hand combat is efficiently done, although shot in a way that resembles an old Arnie movie circa Eraser. 2015 has been an underwhelming year for mainstream cinema so far, but compared to the OTT shenanigans of Furious 7 and Miller’s face-melting two hour guitar solo of a movie Mad Max: Fury Road, American Ultra feels very redundant and dated.

American Ultra is a great example of how not to make a comedy action thriller, and has little going for it other than the performances of Eisenberg and Stewart. Only recommended if you’re extremely bored, drunk and/or stoned, and like to show up late to the cinema.

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