Genres are an aspect of film analysis that I paradoxically love and hate. On the one hand, it’s a straightforward means of grouping films that share similar characteristics. But on the other hand, it can severely trivialize the differences between movies that may be worlds apart, especially when using such broad terms as “fantasy” or “action.” The Fifth Element and 2001: A Space Odyssey are both sci-fi films, but they’re about as similar a badger and an eggplant. Consequently, folks add additional descriptors, breaking down genres into “sci-fi comedy,” “fantasy action,” or “Neo-Marxist progressive rom-com” (disclaimer: I may have made that last one up). Eventually, it becomes simpler to say, “If you liked [insert movie title], then you’ll probably like [insert different movie title.]”
American Ultra highlights the weaknesses of genre-based groupings. It’s a stoner comedy, but it’s also an over-the-top action thriller, and like cholesterol plaque, there’s romance at the heart of American Ultra. It tries to straddle the line between a menagerie of genres while telling an engaging story, and for the most part, it succeeds. Watching American Ultra is like eating a slice of pizza that doesn’t have quite as much pepperoni as you might have hoped. Sure, the parts aren’t coming together exactly as you hoped, but that doesn’t mean it can’t make for a delicious dinner.
American Ultra’s plot is centered around Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner and convenience store clerk in Liman, West Virginia. He’s planning to propose to his girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), when things go awry. As fate would have it, Mike wasn’t just some mild-mannered stoner. He’s a sleeper agent, created as part of an operation called the Ultra Program, created by CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). Lasseter’s rival, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) takes the helm on the Ultra Program, and decides to eradicate the program’s assets, including Mike. To save Mike, Lasseter treks out to Liman, and tells him his activation code. Mike finds that he’s suddenly an expert at fighting, using firearms, and any other skill that could facilitate the killing of his fellow man. Mike’s forced to use these skills as he fights alongside Phoebe and Lasseter against Yates’s arsenal of specially-trained operatives.
American Ultra’s greatest strength is in its ability to shift tone without feeling disjointed or confusing. Mike, Phoebe, and Lasseter are fighting an uphill battle with their lives on the line. Everywhere they go, death clings to them like a bad odor clinging to a skunk’s least favorite person. The numerous action sequences always end with at least one person brutally slain. But at the same time, there’s a lighthearted angle to American Ultra, as Mike reacts with confusion at the way his life is so rapidly changing. He hasn’t completely transformed into an agent, but he finds his combat ability heightened to a ludicrous degree whenever danger rears its head. As a consequence of this, there’ll be a gruesome scene in which Mike kills two guys with a gun and a spoon, and when he describes it to his girlfriend, he says, “They had guns and knives and they were being total dicks!” He’s a trained killer stuffed into the body of a small-town stoner, and American Ultra spins that into clever comedy.
It’d be professionally irresponsible for me to not give special mention to the action sequences. The directing isn’t perfect as some of the action scenes are a bit too busy to follow well, but most have a constant sense of motion, punctuated by Mike eventually killing someone. In one standout scene, Mike is pinned down by gunfire, and taking cover behind a kitchen counter. He grabs a nearby pan, and throws it into the air. The movie decelerates into slow motion as Mike fires a bullet that ricochets off the pan and strikes his attacker. There’s an inventiveness to the action scenes that make the more explosive parts of American Ultra a joy to watch.
Sadly, American Ultra is bogged down by a couple of issues. The first is the acting. Although Kristin Stewart turns in a solid performance as Phoebe, Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mike often feels like a knock-off of the one character that Michael Cera plays in all his movies. The whole “awkward young adult who’s endearingly weird” thing gets old quick. For instance, Mike Howell likes to draw little comics about a monkey and a bunch of other animals in space. Why does the movie bring it up more than once? Because the viewers need to be constantly reminded that Mike is quirky, and that American Ultra is quirky too! But forced humor isn’t a virtue, it’s a vice. In a film full of genuine funniness, it’s hard not to be annoyed by instances in which the writers were clearly trying to hard to inject charm into the mix.
But the greatest weakness of American Ultra is that it’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none. The action scenes are great, the comedy is good, and the acting is alright, but American Ultra doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s like a new dog struggling to learn old tricks. American Ultra can sit and roll over and play dead, but the neighbor’s dog is an old hand at this and can roll over better, and your wealthy cousin’s dog is far better at playing dead. So the question is this: would you rather invest the time into your dog, or wait for a family reunion and try to swipe your cousin’s?
Sorry, that metaphor got away from me a bit. What I’m getting at is that American Ultra is tricky to recommend, not because of any single crushing flaw, but because of a dearth of remarkability. There’s not much to whine about, but that doesn’t equate to raving praise. American Ultra is a good movie, but not an amazing one. There are plenty of films that do action and comedy better, but that doesn’t somehow detract from American Ultra’s charms. It’s fun, it’s cool, and it’s simply a good time. If you’ve exhausted the multitude of funny action flicks that are now in theaters and you’re hankering for more, give American Ultra a try. It won’t irrevocably alter your understanding of film as an artistic medium, but it’ll keep you glued to your seat and entertained the whole way through.
*Image from Screenrant.com, Ogubal, and Lionsgate