Title: American Ultra
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
Plot: Stoner Mike (Eisenberg) is content with his life in the backwater town of Liman, West Virginia were he works as a convenience store clerk with plans to propose to his longterm girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) despite his plans being constantly self-sabotaged by his panic attacks. Little does he know that he’s also a sleeper government agent, whose just been reactivated when his former handler (Britton) learns that he is to be eliminated by her rival Yates (Grace) as part of a clean up program.
Review: What is it about Max Landis that seems to instantly irk certain members of the critical / blogging community? Is it because he’s perhaps had more doors opened to him due to his father being cult director John Landis or the fact that he so openly flaunts this blood connect rather than taking a pen name like Joe Hill (Son of Stephen King)? What ever the reason the mere mention of his name being attached to a project for some reason seems to raise the same kind of destain that M. Night Shyamalan or Eli Roth being attached to a project does.
Personal gripes aside though its hard to see why Landis creates this kind of reaction, especially considering how his body of work as both a writer and director of the rather fantastic shorts “The Death and Return ofSuperman” and “Wrestling Isn’t Wrestling” have shown him to be one of the more original if occasionally unfocused minds currently working since he burst onto the scene with his script for “Chronicle” and this is what we find again with this film.
One of a number of scripts sold on the back of the success of “Chronicle” here he teams up with Director Nima Nourizadeh who previously directed the millennial party movie “Project X” and this time gets to build upon those brief moments of chaos and carnage with the first stoner action hero who might also be the most dangerous man with a spoon!
An interesting concept and one certainly added to with Landis’ unique style as we are introduced to Mike who despite being a stoner isn’t exactly a slacker as he holds down a job working at the local convenience store working on his comic aswell as towards being able to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe who he sees as being the best thing in his life, who he is also paranoid will leave him especially when he self-sabotages their planned trip to Hawaii with his panic attacks.
While the expected path for the film to take would be to have Mike suddenly turn into a badass once he’s activated and all his skills implanted in him by the Ultra program become available to him. But unlike the likes of “The Long Kiss Goodnight” what we get instead is Mike suddenly finding himself able to defend him using his implanted skills and knowledge while at the same time having no clue as to why he is able to do any of it. This was something I found to be kind of jarring the first time I watched the film were for some reason it didn’t seem to sit with me. Upon re-watching it though this time with knowledge of what to expect I found that the experience this time much more enjoyable.
Of course Eisenberg himself much like Topher Grace is far from your traditional action hero and that itself is part of the charm here to see him utilising household objects to maim opponents or pulling off far fetched trick shots using a frying pan to ricochet a gunshot into his target. Its outlandish for sure but there is something so enjoyable in watching these action scenes unfolding, especially with Eisenberg able to tap into this cold and unflinching side whenever his training kicks in and he enters into what could almost be considered a badass autopilot. Balancing out these burst of violence though is his believable relationship which sees him reuniting with former co-star and onscreen love interest Stewart which was certainly welcome after how well they played off each other in “Adventureland” and it was great to see them being able to recapture that chemistry here aswell.
Topher Grace gives a fantastic villainous turn as CIA Agent Yates whose Napoleon complex has him acting the tough guy by hiding behind the many resources available to him, while certainly riding on a power trip gain from his position. This means that we get to see him flying off the handle frequently while refusing to admit even to himself that the situation is quickly escalating out of his control, let alone the clean up operation is really a thinly veiled cover for him wanting to get back at his rival agent Lasseter.
The action throughout though is fantastic especially with Mike often switching off as his training takes over, while the bursts of graphic violence scattered throughout certainly keep things interesting while reminding the viewer that Mike isn’t doing a lot of these things because he can, but because its been what he’s been re-wired to do. At the same time Yates has his own group of killers to match Mike’s skills including Walton Goggins aptly named Laugher who constantly giggles to himself as he goes about his work. Still like we saw in “Chronicle” and “Mr. Right” Landis really knows how to write an original action sequence and this is once again the situation here, though the black light room fight was probably a misstep as it soon becomes something of a migraine to sit though.
Despite having some colourful characters the film does at times feel like it pacing is more plodding than it should be, especially when it comes to the sections based around Mike’s past which certainly could have benefited from being more streamlined than an excuse for trippy visuals. This kind of distracted writing has plagued a lot of Landis’ scripts and again its the same case here but when this film is working its a lot of fun. Perhaps if Nourizadeh had been able to clean up Landis’ script this might have been something a lot more special than it ultimately ends up being but at the same time there is still enough there to make it worth giving a watch even if its not the film it could have perhaps been.