American Ultra - Review

American Ultra is a game whose marketing, including its first trailer, arrived fairly late in relation to the movie’s release. Resultingly, the movie’s sudden appearance was sort of a surprise. Especially keeping in mind that Jesse Eisenberg is currently getting most of his public attention in regards to his involvement in Batman v Superman, American Ultra sort of fell off the radar for many people.
Trailers however promised a comicy action blockbuster with stoner comedy elements mixed in. With Jesse Eisenberg already having proved that he is able to handle entire leading roles in movies and Kristen Stewart’s mostly bland and dead-eyed look actually feeling quite fitting for a stoner girl at Jesse’s side, American Ultra has quite some things going for it. But does it stand its ground among the other summer blockbusters this year?...


The plot:
Small-town stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) spends most of his time getting high and writing a graphic novel about a superhero monkey. What Mike doesn't know is that he was trained by the CIA to be a lethal killing machine. When the agency targets him for termination, his former handler activates his latent skills, turning the mild-mannered slacker into a deadly weapon. Now, the utterly surprised Mike must use his newfound abilities to save himself and his girlfriend from getting wasted.
Source: IMDb

American Ultra is best described as mix of The Manchurian Candidate and Kick-Ass with very light comedic elements. However, only after a short time, it becomes very obvious that American Ultra is not really what it initially presented itself as in its trailers. While the trailers promised more of a wacky “stoner comedy meets brutal action”-flick in the style of Kick-Ass or R.E.D., American Ultra is actually extremely light on comedy. And even though it’s not as dramatic of a case as to call it shameful false advertising, it will definitely catch most moviegoers off guard. With that said, American Ultra is sadly a movie that actually looks much more fun in its trailers and on the posters than it actually is, since it takes itself way too seriously. It results in a movie that doesn’t take advantage of its premise’s potentials and feels quite a bit undercooked in the longrun.

The movie should but never actually does feel like this picture.

American Ultra is an action thriller that uses many familiar elements in its story. Centering around a stoner who unbeknownst to him is a sleeper agent targeted by the CIA to be eliminated, it’s a rather typical “who am I really?”-quest kind of movie, all the while trying to survive the numerous attacks of the CIA agents. Resultingly, the movie is quite predictable in the way its story ultimately plays out throughout its rather short running time of about 80 minutes.
However, despite being predictable, American Ultra has some nice and entertaining moments and characters in its story that partially even hint at a larger universe (that could be explored more in potential sequels). The unfortunate thing however is that American Ultra mostly just misses the mark on striking a good balance between its serious and comedic tones.

Remember the comedy promised in the trailers? Well, better forget about that.

With that said, American Ultra oftentimes feels overly serious and partially even depressing. There are far not as many funny or comedic parts as the trailers make it out to be. Though it indeed has its share of more cartoonish characters, they only manage to underline how the movie’s drastic tonal shifts. Comparable to the tonal shift problems in movies like The Losers, American Ultra sometimes feels like you are watching two different movies at the same time. One second you are watching a depressing scene with Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg’s character) lamenting over his fears and miserable life, only to be suddenly hit with an overly cartoonish and over the top CIA bad guy. It’s nothing too jarring to hamper your experience with the movie too much, yet it definitely doesn’t feel as fitting as it could if the serious elements were just played down a bit more and if the overall comedy would’ve been amped up.

"Let's be sad here together."

Jesse Eisenberg does really well though with his performance as the twitchy, awkward stoner Mike Howell. He definitely feels like a good hearted stoner thrown into extreme situations out of his ordinary slacker lifestyle. It’s fun watching him suddenly bust out killer lethal moves to his enemies without him having a clue what’s going on. Yet the stoner aspects of his character could’ve easily been played out a lot more for the sake of comedy. Again, it comes down to Eisenberg’s character feeling a bit stuck in one place and rarely feeling like a definite character development is going on up until the very last act of the movie. Since Mike is mostly running away or attacking enemies only in self-defense, one would’ve wished that the movie would’ve incorporated some moment of revelation in which Mike suddenly remembers everything from his past and can now go all out – yet this sadly never really happens.
What comes off as a very pleasant surprise however, is Kristen Stewart’s performance as Mike’s girlfriend Phoebe. Kristen Stewart’s performance here is actually one of her better efforts in recent memory. While her standard rather bland and expressionless face fits the bill of a stoner girl pretty well to begin with, it’s the emotional scenes in which Kristen shows that she can occasionally go beyond her comfort zone. She still is nowhere near to be what can be considered an acting talent, yet this is simply a case of a role being perfect for a specific actor to play.

Chased and confused.

The antagonistic characters in American Ultra almost entirely come off as the most cartoonish and over the top of the entire cast.
Topher Grace plays the main villain, Adrian Yates, in American Ultra. He truly enjoys the role and acts very often like a typical over the top cheesy bond villain. Yet at the same time, his character is also very bland when it comes to actual motivations or background for his actions aside from simply “wanting to serve the government and push his career”.
Walton Gogins, who recently shows up more frequently in big Hollywood productions, plays one of Topher Grace’s more wacky henchmen called “Laugher”. If you couldn’t already guess by the name, his trait is to be mostly laughing like an idiot whenever he is threatening and or pursuing his targets. He oftentimes comes off as more of a wannabe-Joker and a throwaway threat though, seeing that he always very easily gets outsmarted by Eisenberg or even Stewart. It’s only towards the end of the movie that some interesting deeper personality of his is revealed, yet of course the movie makes no big attempt of doing anything substantial with it.
When looking at the villains, it often feels like watching a different movie.

Actionwise, American Ultra is serviceable enough to be entertaining but it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Though the scenes in which Eisenberg suddenly kills multiple foes with some of the most random objects are cool to watch, the movie never reaches the level of shocking awe through its sudden brutality like in Kick-Ass which it so clearly aims at though. It all boils down to the movie having a bit of a hard time making it clear when Eisenberg’s/Mike’s automatic killer instinct suddenly kicks in and when he is himself. This sort of “on-off switch” is not well defined enough and in a way prevents moments of “sudden killer instinct-explosions” to happen that could’ve otherwise made the action scenes in the movie feel more impactful and special.

The action scenes are servicable but far not as "kick-ass" as they want to be.

Overall, American Ultra will serve as a rather short and averagely entertaining flick if you don’t hold onto your expectations too much. Otherwise you will most probably be left very disappointed with a serviceable yet quite forgettable movie that missed using the full potential of its premise.
Though the marketing of the movie makes it look like a great mix of blockbuster action and stoner comedy, the movie mostly takes itself way too seriously to make any of its rare attempts at humor effectively work. American Ultra clearly aims to be another Kick-Ass type of movie with unusual characters taking out enemies in the most comically brutal fashions. However, the movie’s oftentimes unfitting tonal shifts between its serious and partially even depressing themes and the very cartoonishly cheesy antagonists, make it feel very uneven.
American Ultra is by no means an awful movie though. It has its respectable share of good moments that make it an okay experience. But it’s the kind of movie best experienced at home on DVD or Blu-Ray rather than in the theater. And if you want to see a movie that more or less takes the same formula as American Ultra and executes it way more successfully, just watch Pineapple Express.

Final Verdict: 4 out of 10


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