Not essential viewing by any means, American Ultra is good enough to turn on and zone out.
The chill life of a slacker Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is disrupted when he skillfully terminates two men in self defence. He soon realizes he has a very particular set of skills he wasn’t even aware of. Mike as it turns out is a guinea pig for a secret government program that trains petty criminals to be lethal assassins, then wipes their memory, their training only to be ‘activated’ when needed. When the program itself is terminated, they must erase all evidence and find out the hard way just how effective this weapon they created really is.
American Ultra is what you would get if you asked Kevin Smith to adapt The Bourne Identity. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) shoots his action with a look and energy that could make you easily mistake it for a Matthew Vaughn joint. Most of the humour comes from how ill equipped this stoner is to deal with the crazy situation he’s thrust into. Physically, Mike is about the least threatening person you can imagine, but his super power is a Macgyver-like ability to turn anything around him into weapon. Eisenberg is fun to watch as he goes between the activated and the unactivated Mike, until they eventually become one. He’s is reunited with his Adventureland co-star Kristen Stewart who brings to this role what she does to most, which isn’t much. Topher Grace, John Lequizamo, and Walton Goggins are all comically over-the-top, adding to the overall b-movie drive-in good time of American Ultra.
American Ultra is the kind of action comedy that most studios tend to shy away from these days: R-rated with batshit crazy action scenes and not based on any existing property. This is probably why the marketing tried make it look like the next Pineapple Express. I wouldn’t file American Ultra in the 420 folder. It’s established early on that Mike’s primary form of recreation is drugs, but it’s never essential to the story in any way, it’s not like there’s a specific strain of weed he has to smoke to be activated, it’s really just another way to make him appear harmless when we first meet him.
Given such a far fetched premise, this film could have easily devolved into drivel, but screenwriter Max Landis knows how to move a story along and keep you invested. Landis’ name may sound familiar because of his father John (who happens to have directed some of the biggest comedies of all time), or because you may have heard of him after he penned the 2012 indie hit Chronicle, either way, it’s a name you’re going to be hearing a lot more of. American Ultra didn’t quite do gangbusters at the box office, but having seen the next two films Landis has coming out, Victor Frankenstein and Mr. Right, I predict he’ll have no problem getting his scripts made in the foreseeable future. Mr. Right, starring Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick, feels like Landis taking his American Ultra formula and perfecting it with tighter comedy and better characters. Frankenstein is completely different genre, but his take on the story impressed me as well, and at 30 years old he’s already accomplished more than most screenwriters dream.
An HD transfer isn’t a requirement for enjoying a film like American Ultra, but it helps, particularly for the action sequence that plays out in psychedelic blue lit room (the above image doesn’t do it justice).
“Activating American Ultra” is a bit better than your average making-of doc thrown together for home releases these days. 40 minutes (inexplicably split into two parts) allows it to go a little deeper than just soundbites of cast and crew washing each others’ proverbial cars. There’s a little of that, but not to a nauseating level. American Ultra was a very technical production with a significant amount of time spent on stunt work, and the doc reflects that.
“Assassinating on a Budget” is a featurette that sounds like it would be about how this was an underdog film with very little money backing them, but it’s even more innocuous than that. Someone decided it would be funny take scenes from the movie, freeze frame it whenever he picks up a new object to stab or bludgeon someone with and show you the retail price of that object. There’s a punchline at the end that at least gives this strange video some context.
If the 3 minute Gag Reel is any indication, Jesse Eisenberg is not as serious as I imagined, and for some reason there’s something about Leguizamo that made Eisenberg crack during many of their takes together.
Director’s commentary is often what I look for first on a Blu-ray, but some directors are better at this than others at this. Nima Nourizadeh spends most of the commentary simply stating what’s happening at that point in the film, how far into the shooting schedule they were when they shot it, or not saying anything at all. It’s a very superficial film and there’s not much to say in the way of analysis, but it’s also very technical at points, perhaps he’d rather not reveal the tricks of his trade. It’s basically void of anecdotes as well, except for that one scene that Kristen Stewart got bit by a mosquito. He makes sure to point it out when you can see the bite, but I still couldn’t really see it. Perhaps the commentary would have benefitted from the presence of the more loquacious screenwriter Max Landis or some of the articulate cast members.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
American Ultra isn’t one you need to rush out and buy. In six months it will probably cost half as much and if you haven’t seen it by then, I’d recommend checking it out. If you like it then watching the “Activating American Ultra” documentary should give you an even greater appreciation for it, but you can skip the commentary track.
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