American Ultra totally passed me by last year. I don't even remember it getting a theatrical release in NZ. I finally decided to take a look.
American Ultra is about Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner who lives in the small town of Liman, West Virginia. When he isn't working the counter at a Cash'n'Carry, he's doing drugs and making life harder for his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).
The movie begins with him experiencing a panic attack as he tries to take Phoebe on a long-delayed vacation to Hawaii. The pair dejectedly return home, and Mike's lack of drive increases.
One day, a mysterious woman turns up at Mike's work and repeats an odd phrase at him. This triggers a strange change in Mike. After work, he catches two men messing with his car, and kills them.
Terrified, he calls Phoebe.
Soon, the pair are on the run from a shadowy organisation intent on wiping Mike out.
Eventually the truth is revealed: Mike was a subject in a super-spy program, who has been placed back into civilian life. And Phoebe is not just his girlfriend, she was his handler in the CIA.
Cue shoot-outs, gore, a toothless Walton Goggins and a cameo from a famous(ish) actor.
American Ultra is one of those movies where the idea is cool, the actors are all doing good work, and yet the whole thing never rises above its components.
The script by Max Landis (Chronicle) has plenty of interesting ideas, and his handling of the central couple's relationship is more nuanced than it initially appears, but the story doesn't go anywhere that interesting. It just ends in a shootout and a proposal.
The bigger problem is the direction. The script is clearly demanding a juggling of tones which Nima Nourizadeh fumbles. The comedy is patchy, and the violence comes across as too graphic -- it feels more like a serious action movie, but never feels funny in the same way as something like a Tarantino flick or In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008). The movie is also visually uninteresting -- it feels like the script is going for something more irreverent and hi-octane, but the movie comes across as flat and extremely dark.
Where this movie scores, and where I was totally invested, was in the relationship between Eisenberg and Stewart. I have a feeling the reason I ended up liking the movie is down to their chemistry and interplay.
Mike and Phoebe feel real, and their relationship, as fucked-up and co-dependant as it is, feels lived in. Despite their problems, and the fact that they would probably do better if they broke up, these two are completely invested in each other. The early pre-spy part of the movie was genuinely involving, and kind of heart-breaking. I found the scene where Mike relays an idea he had for a comic book more interesting than anything else because it felt like the kind of random nonsense people talk about. And the fact that Phoebe is clearly the only person who could find that idea interesting... there's a great relationship movie stuck in here, and every nugget of it is worth savouring.
Eisenberg is good as Mike. He's annoying and lazy, and half the time you want to slap him upside the head for being an asshole, yet Eisenberg manages to make him (somehow) sympathetic. The scene where he tells Phoebe she'd be better off without him is genuinely heartbreaking. Definitely a good example of how solid casting can save an unlikeable role.
The real surprise was Stewart. I've liked her in the past, but this was something else. Her forte is usually characters dealing with internal struggles (which is why her role as Snow White, warrior woman, is so cringe-worthy), but here she feels more alive and off-the-cuff than she's ever been. She makes it credible that a seemingly normal woman would go out with a dumbass like Mike, and you wind up hoping they make it out together.
The twist that she is his handler feels... odd. I wasn't that bothered by it because the acting was so good, but it does make for a queasy post-mortem. So Phoebe has given up her life to maintain this charade with a brainwashed man who is incapable of living by himself... because of her? I needed more exposition for this. It does undermine the nature of their relationship, but once again I'll chalk it up to the chemistry and performances sanding off the rough edges of Landis' conceit.
The rest of the cast are fine. Connie Britton and Topher Grace play rival CIA operatives -- Britton is solid, but underused; Grace is flimsy as the Big Bad. He still looks and sounds too much like Eric Foreman to convince as the architect of a secret conspiracy. John Leguizamo plays Mike's drug dealer, but the role could have been played by anyone (or cut entirely). Walton Goggins is in a completely different movie. He plays one of Grace's hitmen -- the problem is he feels like a serial killer from the next David Fincher movie.
Ultimately, American Ultra is a decent action comedy. It's more original than the usual fare we get these days, but it just lacks the dramatic heft to get its clever premise over the line. Definitely worth a look for the performances by the leads.