by: Richie Watkins
American Ultra is an action-comedy about a slacker stoner who fights to keep himself and his girlfriend alive, after he discovers not only that he has superhuman abilities, but also that the CIA is trying to kill him because they see him as a threat. On paper, American Ultra sounds like “stoner Jason Bourne”. However, it plays more like a missed opportunity to spoof the last 15 years of the modern, one-man-kills-them-all action movies.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is, for the most part, painful to watch, and tolerable only during the action scenes (because he does not have to say anything or attempt to emote). When Mike becomes sad, the acting is cringeworthy because he sounds whiny, and when Mike becomes angry, the acting is frustrating because Eisenberg holds back. I just don’t understand what is so appealing about characters who are incapable of properly expressing their emotions, when the film makes no effort to exploit such a shortcoming for laughs.
Why exactly is Mike not a good character? Well, it is because his personality is too passive. The dude has no drive. What about Mike’s comic book writing and drawing hobby? Yeah, that is exactly what I was left wondering at the end of the movie (I’ll get to that in a bit). His only problem is that he feels like he is holding Phoebe back from being successful. But does he do anything to solve this problem? No. He cries about it, and Phoebe tells him, “No, you don’t hold me back.” To the film’s credit, this inner problem of Mike’s is alluded to at least once more in the film, and is shown to be solved in the end. Therefore, it does give the movie a point, but it never seems as though Mike is actively trying to solve that problem. When Phoebe does become involved with the bad guys trying to kill Mike, he is simply trying to save her life because he loves her.
Now, one could argue that Mike does in fact have a goal. The fault in that argument is that, while his actions certainly become active early on, Mike’s personality remains boredom tear-inducing “blah”. In other words, Eisenberg’s acting does not convince me that the character has any drive.
Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is uninteresting as well. Even when we find out more about her character, she remains less-than-two-dimensional. Her acting is less monotone than that of Eisenberg, but only because she is required to do more than simply act stoned for 90 minutes.
Pictured: 1st day of acting class
Topher Grace, who plays the CIA agent in charge of operation “Kill Mike”, overacts in every scene he is given. His approach would have been great if the film were an outrageous comedy, but even then, repeatedly shouting curse words is nothing but grating.
Look, kids! It’s a recovering Spider-Man 3 actor!
Here is a case of a movie that is not sure what it wants to be. In some scenes, it is supposed to be very serious, but there are several moments that attempt to be funny, but instead sour the feeling of the movie. Seriously, American Ultra filmmakers, pick a genre and stick with it! Examples: Mike is trapped underneath a burning car, and says, less-than-seriously, to a bad guy, “I hate you!”.
The action scenes, on the other hand, when fighting and gunplay are happening, are very intense, and are (gasp) consistent, which is why two certain ones were the best in the movie. While they generally move the story along, they don’t fit with the feel of the half-baked, noticeably there-and-gone-again quirkiness of the dialogue scenes. They especially don’t fit with the indie, young adult, drama-romance scenes in the first act, nor do they fit with the stoner comedy feel either. If you want to go hard, make an action film. And if you want to be funny at the same time, figure out how to create comedic moments that naturally sprout from the action. A stoner film is not about fight scenes. It’s about watching people screw up because they smoke too much weed.
Another flaw in the story is that big moments abruptly happen, meaning there is no suspense leading up to them. Therefore, such big moments fall flat. There is no built-up mystery around certain characters, so when a “shocking” revelation occurs, it feels stale because it feels random and forced. What is supposed to be the biggest moment–the climax–is…well….anti-climatic. Spoiler: there is nothing memorable about the final fight. In an action film like Lethal Weapon, the final fight is memorable. Why? Because it is a change of pace from all of the action scenes. 1) It is set in the rain in the front yard of a house, and 2) the fight is so much rawer than anything else in the movie. In that scene, the protagonist and antagonist fight dirtier than what we have seen them fight before in order to try to kill each other. In American Ultra, the location of the fight is the same as all of the other ones, the henchmen Mike just disposed of, and there are no tense moments that make me feel as though Mike is having a much harder time with the opponent than he did with anyone else.
Even in Lethal Weapon 4’s final fight, the filmmakers do something different by making Riggs and Murtaugh suck even more than in the rest of the movie, by pitting them against Jet Li.
There are several scenes (mainly in the first half) that show Mike’s great passion for his creation–a superhero ape named Apollo Ape. However, the arc never receives closure because the movie is more concerned with turning Mike into a total badass. The movie seems to hint that Mike is still thinking about Apollo Ape at the end of the film, when he goes on a new mission (we see illustrations of Apollo Ape beating everyone up, just as Mike begins to fight and the credits begin to roll). So, I suppose one could argue some artistic BS like, “Mike didn’t need to finish his comic book about a superhero monkey, because he was living it!” (pictured below: a stereotype of who would say this; captioned below: my response).
Nonetheless, the comic book arc served no purpose to the story. Mike never flashes to visions of this ape at any point in any of the other fights. Therefore, it seems silly to introduce an arc, then inexplicably drop it when the action begins.
The characters, their revelations, the setup for the plot, the plot itself, and the story beats are too cliché to not be made fun of, especially since this is supposed to be a comedy. There was a great foundation laid, but nothing was done to take advantage of it.
For the most part, this is not even a stoner comedy, except for the first 15 minutes or so. There are long periods of time without comedy. And when comedy does happen, it’s so “heh” and not “haha”. The humor is more akin to comic relief from Die Hard. The kind where it makes you go, “Oh! That character just showed an unexpected hint of another dimension of their personality!” The lines that I am talking about are when Topher Grace briefs his men on going to kill Mike, who is trapped in a police station and he says, “There is no way you can possibly mess this up!”, and when Mike makes one of his first two kills with a spoon, Grace’s character responds to one of his subordinates, “He was killed with a spoon?”
The right-hand man of Grace’s character, Laugher, has…get this…a crazy laugh! And…get this…it’s not funny! because it’s used to show how crazy the character is. I just view it as, “Oh, he’s crazy.” When he repeatedly does it, I view it as “Wow, he’s annoying.”
I’m not sure why the writers didn’t just make Mike become immune to weed. Then his goal would not be to be turbo-charged, but to try to get high. Wouldn’t that be the perfect motivation for a character who is a stoner at heart, and for, ya know, a STONER movie?
American Ultra could have actually been very funny had it recognized the clichés and made fun of them, and played more to its apparent target audience. (The whole “I’m worried I’m holding you back” angle could have been ripped upon big time for being an inconsequential inner problem). Also, Eisenberg and Stewart are not convincing as potheads. Their amateurish acting is like that of teenagers trying to act like potheads in a college student film. Why not do something different by casting actors who have never done a slacker/stoner movie before? Get a James McAvoy, or a Keira Knightley. If original movies are going to thrive in this modern age of cinema, they need actors, writers, producers, and directors that can bring the idea of a film to life.
Save for a couple of cool action scenes, American Ultra is a largely forgettable film that seems unsure of what it wants to be–an over-the-top action film, or a romantic stoner comedy.