Ultra Violent, Yet Ultra Forgettable
DIRECTED BY NIMA NOURIZADEH/2015
We‘ve seen a lot of Americans at the movies in the past decade or so. American Beauty, American Sniper, American Gangster, American Movie, American Hustle, American Hardcore, American Pie – the list goes on. It’s been a veritable melting pot of national introspection/navel gazing. But every pot has its boiling point, and with American Ultra, we seem to have arrived. The title tells us everything and nothing about this film, in so much as here we have a movie that aims to puteverything is on the table, but arrives at nothing. It’s a surface-deep cheap thrill generator, ultimately about as memorable and as meaningful as its title.
American Ultra is essentially The Bourne Identity meets True Romance with comedy, sans the vibrancy or immediacy of not just Tarantino or Greengrass, but Tony Scott and Doug Liman as well. It’s a gratuitous stinkbug of a movie: It’s got six legs and crawls like all the other bugs, but it’s qualities which set it apart are not virtuous.
It stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart as stoner slacker lovers that unknowingly find themselves the subjects of a weird, agressive CIA trackdown. The film is cooked through with violence for the sake of cool, with faux badassery and put-on attitude to spare. These are the same allegations once faced by Pulp Fiction and Bonnie and Clyde before it. But unlike those controversial touchstones, American Ultradoesn’t recontextualize, comment, or challenge. Yet it definitely thinks it’s clever and vibrant, just like The Bit Hit with Mark Walhberg did back in 1998. Remember that one? Didn’t think so.
The story begins with a badly bloodied Eisenberg (sporting what may be a greasy version of his upcoming Batman v. Superman Lex Luthor locks) in an interogation room, not saying much. Then we agressively flashback to find out how and why this happened. Don’t let the flashing lights, blunt smoking, and colorful language fool you – there’s nothing edgy going on here. When Eisenberg suffers a panic attack that derails a romantic trip to Hawaii, we not only ask ourselves why the supposedly vibrant Kristen Stewart (reteaming with Eisenberg, following their wonderful Adventureland… Is this the unofficial nightmare sequel?) puts up with such a bum, but why Cameron Crowe and the cast of Aloha couldn’t have also missed that plane.
Part of me almost feels badly laying into American Ultra, as it does try hard to be that “something different” at the multiplex that we so often complain that the world is now lacking. But the trouble is, it spends more energy proclaiming its own proud wild streak than it does earning it. The film is a sham, a put-on, phoney baloney. As far as all of that goes, it isn’t an altogether un-entertaining outing, but once the veneer of post-Tarantino dirty cool is scraped away, we’re nonetheless left with a vapid shell, a stoner-baiting yarn.
Written by Max Landis (son of director John Landis) of Chronicle fame, we’re left to wonder if, following the recent downfall of that film’s director, Josh Trank (Fantastic Four), if everyone involved with it is somehow tainted in their follow up. No such downfall scenario, however, can be applied to American Ultra‘s director, Nima Nourizadeh, who’s only previous feature credit is the dreadful Project X, a truly soulless teen debauchery film that ranked for this critic as worst film of 2012. In that light, the similarly soulless if watchable American Ultra is a major leap forward.
For all the ferocity and verve that American Ultra wants to proclaim, practically no one seems entirely convinced of what they’re doing in this film. When we see Bill Pullman as a CIA bossmanmean-squinting into the camera, we’re meant to think that he’s a man incapable of taking any crap, and that he might just kill someone. Instead, we’re thinking, “What is Bill Pullman doing??” Similar to how we might be thinking “What is Jesse Eisenberg doing?” (he’s killing people with dustpans and spoons), or “What is Kristen Stewart doing?” (Bless her, she’s working hard to sell her part of this trip. The same can be said for Connie Britton as a good natured operative – an endangered species in this movie’s world). Only Topher Grace, playing a ridiculously kill-happy CIA higher-up in a grey three piece suit, seems to understand exactly what movie he’s supposedly working on. He spends the film deep sighing and spazzing out, a caffine addled war pig with a truckload of geneticly altered mental patients. Similar accolades cannot be presented toNourizadeh, who’s clearly getting off on the over the top moments, but failing to energize the rest of it.
With all the talk and resentment of American entitlement the world over, it’s unfortunate that an effort such as this one – not a poorly funded film that foresakes its dabbling into ideas of national identity and law enforcement – ends up resembling from the outside-in the very systemic entitlement it should be criticizing. At one point, American Ultra may’ve had a brain in its head. But any such virtue was baked out of it long ago.
How many other countries are so enamoured with themselves that they see fit to put the name of the country on umpteen movies? Here’s one movie that’s so entitled, it doesn’t even bother to do so in a coherent fashion. American Ultra earns its dud of a title as it panders to thrillseekers of all nationalities.