American Ultra Review
Homagingly set in Liman, West Virginia the same way someone’s unproduced comedic rip-off of Predator might star Gina Carano as ‘Colonel Val Verde,’ American Ultra is the latest in the mostly fun but forgettable Manchurian genre, another future cable tv schedule-filler about unlikely super-assassins.
In RED and its sequel, the assassins were above a certain age, a daring character twist that of course makes everything hilarious.
In the Bourne franchise, a central element was amnesia, which makes everything mysterious and forces you to watch the whole narrative in order to understand the clumsy, hazy flashbacks.
In the most recent Universal Soldier entries (Regeneration and Day of Reckoning), the twist is that those John Hyams films are brilliant, wonderful masterpieces that deserved to dominate 2,000+ screens opening weekend but instead were relegated to dtv releases and residual word of mouth notoriety.
In American Ultra, the hook is, “Have you ever been a deadly CIA sleeper agent… on weed, man?!?”
So Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) litter their dialogue with, like, a lot of “likes” and the like. That is how we know they are youthful stoners. Also they dress in grungy attire that contrasts with their sharply professional, square CIA antagonists as well as their friendly local lowlife clique led by an as usual obnoxious John Leguizamo inhabiting a garishly colorful abode (which happens to facilitate one of the most striking images of recent cinema when the lovely Ms. Stewart’s relatively large upper incisors receive the blacklight treatment).
K-Stew has been doing some fine work the last few years, fine enough that any respectable critic should be embarrassed to refer to her as K-Stew, but the universe has yet to find an attractive woman capable of convincingly pretending to be infatuated with Eisenberg. He is a nerd; no amount of extended single take action depicting his ability to turn the houseware aisles of a big box store into his own badass The Equalizer fantasy is going to change that. Good try, though.
To be fair, that climactic action sequence is not a oner for oner’s sake. It accomplishes as much narratively as it dazzles visually. Our reluctant hero Howell suffers a piercing wound to the torso (similar to what might happen to a crucifixion victim if the authorities wanted to verify lifelessness), then suffers a screwdriver through the hand (stigmata is so in right now), then suffers a number of head wounds (leaving his face almost as bloody and swollen as, say, one who has been forced to don a crown of thorns), then bestows merciful forgiveness on a fellow sinner similarly facing eternal judgment if not mortal expiration. There is also a moment when a false authority figure asks Howell, “Who tells you what to do?” His response is not unlike a certain Nazarene’s declaration that his “kingdom is not of this world.”
Walton Goggins is put to good use as “Laugher,” the mercenary killer who laughs all the time. That is not the most tactically sound affectation for a CIA-subcontracted wetwork asset to possess, but at least it allows for a notable silhouette shot introducing the other American Ultra cast member with prominent teeth. Laugher’s intro is a microcosm of the movie itself – artful and purposeful, yet tacky and abrasive.
American Ultra almost has something to say about the politically hot notion of weaponized drone use over American soil, but ultimately this film’s would-be pivotal sequence has no more to offer on the issue than did the hilarious[ly bloodless] Los Angeles climax of Fast & Furious 7.
Can audiences really be expected to care about whether some Langley office drone (Tony Hale) follows an angry Langley bureaucrat’s (Topher Grace) order to hit The Red Button to blow up some West Virginian head case when we can not even muster an appropriately incredulous response to leading GOP presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson’s suggestion we deploy armed drones at the US-Mexico border? The suspense dies when one considers how much stranger prospective truth is than theoretical fiction.
The best thing about American Ultra is that it is 90 minutes long. Tolerable!