5 out of 10
American Ultra Cast:
Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Much popular psychology hay has been made recently about the new generation of twenty-somethings (both recent graduates and otherwise) who have actively resisted exiting childhood, or at least adolescence. People like Mike Howell (Eisenberg) who spend much of his time coming up with reasons not to move on from his dead-end town or search for better things, preferring to smoke pot with the love of his life (Stewart) and dream about comic book characters he’s not actually going to create.
It’s an interesting set up for one of the oldest of story types, the coming-of-age tale, that flip’s the hero’s focus from an individual actively looking for the responsibility of adulthood (and unaware of the cost entailed) with one who knows what it means and is doing his best to run the other way. It’s a set up which gets nowhere near enough oxygen in American Ultra, unfortunately, as the decision to turn around is more or less taken from Mike’s hands in order to make room for the far more hackneyed action movie the filmmakers are more interested in making.
Because Mike, it turns out, is a highly-trained super spy and when a CIA officer speaks his code phrase, Mike’s more dangerous adult side (not to mention the skills he didn’t know he possessed) suddenly springs to life. Granted coming-of-age stories are well-covered ground, approached many different ways by many different people, and the bar of adding something new to the field is high. Max Landis (Chronicle) takes a good stab at it early on however, focusing on nuanced relationship building between Mike and Phoebe set alongside Mike’s growing discomfort with his own inertia.
Taking care to show more than tell, Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) spend the first act crafting tension below the surface of Mike and Phoebe’s romance: the shared fear that adult Phoebe and adult Mike might not actually like each other; the fact that the adult relationship pushing them to the precipice they have been avoiding may not survive the fall. They also spend the time rehashing some extremely well-worn tropes – Mike and Phoebe sitting on the hood of their car, getting high and talking faux philosophy is so by the numbers it could be parody (but isn’t) – which turns out to be more of a warning than a one-off.
Once reactivated, Mike suddenly finds himself back on the CIA’s radar, which inevitably means a cover up must be enacted before someone finds out what’s what, meaning soldiers and black helicopters showing up to shoot anyone who might know something. The filmmakers are focused on keeping the audience on their toes and surprised (always a good thing) but bandaging two well-used, cliché-magnet story structures together sticks Ultra with the weaknesses of both genres and few of their strengths.
The actual switchover is handled extremely well, partly due to the comedic incongruity of seeing Eisenberg spontaneously transform into Jason Bourne and partly to a handful of interesting, well-cast characters that make up Mike’s life. As clumsily as Ultra handles much of its genre-bending, it is right on target watching Eisenberg flip between unstoppable killing machine and in-over-his-head goof freaking out over what’s happening to him, or Stewart trying to make sense of the world for him.
Similar care is taken with the small side characters that make up Mike’s town, giving it a living, breathing life. Unfortunately it’s an all too rare life as well, as the genre-blending style makes it impossible to get too much of that in order to make room for de rigueur set pieces and exposition. In practice this means wonderful bits like John Leguizamo’s drug dealer whining to his body guards about not being invited into their fantasy football league are increasingly pushed aside to make room for shots of a whiney CIA boss (Grace) watching satellite feeds and yelling about his drone strikes.
Genre-blending films only work if it feels like everyone involved is within the same movie, but Mike’s adversaries seem to have just inadvertently blundered into his world from the theater next door. Seemingly immune to the charm and wit of the Eisenberg half of the film, they are unable to build any kind of meaningful relationship (antagonistic or otherwise) with anyone mainly because most of their dialogue is exposition.
It evidences a real confusion on Nourizadeh and Landis’ part about what the film actually is. Taking over the film as swiftly as they take over Mike’s town, the CIA agents are supposed to bring excitement and suspense with them, but the more time that is languished on them, the more generic Ultra gets.
That doesn’t mean they are prepared to give up their ambitions any more than Mike is when, after discovering what’s happened to him and who was responsible, he is finally forced to decide if he wants to remain a child forever (or until he gets shot) or if he is prepared to embrace the man he truly is. But the lack of a defining vision hobbles those ambitions, offering up a muddled, uncertain film.
It even filters down into the set pieces, which are often flat and uninvolving with individuals slowly walking to their marks to set up the odd high concept shot like a bullet ricocheting off a flying frying pan. They are American Ultra in microcosm, occasionally interesting moments placed haphazardly and without care next to each other.
The result is less genre mash up and more head on collision and something not unlike childhood itself, transforming before your eyes from a naïve and fun and interesting was to a grotesque and banal now which can never fully capture the promise of its early going.