‘American Ultra’ is a heartfelt, messy mash-up
“American Ultra” is the rare case of two stellar actors elevating material that could get lost without them. Those two actors would be Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I know, it’s popular to despise them both or think they’ve gotten where they are due to luck and limited skill sets. That thinking is wrong.
“American Ultra” follows Mike and Phoebe, an impoverished pair of lovers doing what they can to get by. She is patient with him; he has panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving town. Just as we’re getting to know them, viewers are whisked away to C.I.A. Headquarters, where Yates (Topher Grace) is shutting down a program of brainwashed operatives once run by Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike is on the hit list, and to save him, Lasseter has to trigger him into remembering his agency training.
Events very quickly spiral out of control, and Mike is quickly using everyday objects to murder his would-be assassins. I counted a spoon, a dustpan, and I think even a package of tortillas as deadly weapons. After the violence, Mike returns to being panicky and unsure of himself. Phoebe handles and helps him through it, getting a few punches of her own in along the way.
Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for his leading role in “The Social Network,” but being cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” seems to have turned many against him. Think what you want, but there’s one scene in “American Ultra” when Eisenberg cuts through the blood and the tears with just a look. His performance becomes a creature all its own, something pulsing and angry and confused and viciously dangerous. The film can’t rely on this -- it needs Eisenberg to pace back and forth nervously between action scenes and make us laugh. Yet Eisenberg knows when to step on the gas and when to let off.
Stewart is even more complicated. She’s treated as toxic by an industry in which she launched two major franchises (“Twilight” and “Snow White and the Huntsman”) by the age of 22. Why? She had an affair with her “Snow White” director, cheating on heartthrob boyfriend Robert Pattinson. She’s been effectively blacklisted from major studio projects since, never mind that the the director -- twice her age, married, and with children -- suffered no such ill response and was promptly given a $200 million movie. It’s one of the most egregious double standards Hollywood’s offered in recent years.
Hate Stewart if you want, but you’re missing one of the most dynamic shifts into independent film in recent history. She is slaughtering dramatic and comedic roles left, right, and center, finding the chemistry, realism, and emotional nuance that was drained from her characters in mainstream roles. With “Camp X-Ray,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Still Alice,” and now “American Ultra,” she’s in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. She’s good. She might even be great one day.
Eisenberg and Stewart sell this off-kilter material beautifully together. They believe in the movie’s reality so intensely, they cover up for many of the film’s seams. They’re assisted by comedy veterans like John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale as a C.I.A. agent torn in his loyalties.
If you watch “American Ultra” as a straight action movie or comedy, you’ll find it uneven. It’s a film you can’t take too seriously. If you watch it as a romance and a chance for two actors to power their way through a mash-up of a half-dozen genres, it may leave you touched and impressed.
“American Ultra” ends up doing many things that “The Man from UNCLE” couldn’t get right last week. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is palpable. While the styles are vastly different, this film is more consistent and coherent. It’s a violent, occasionally comedic metaphor for the struggles we go through in opening up and learning to trust during relationships. On that level, it works beautifully and it can hit the heart in strange ways. If anything, it’s a sly update on a film like “Grosse Pointe Blank,” using spy movie tropes as a way of talking about the growing up we have to do in life.
In many ways, this is what I wish films like “Kingsman,” “Wanted,” “Pineapple Express,” and “Shoot ‘Em Up” could have achieved: a reason for being. While they were focused on slick explosions and fancy choreography and other things I’ll admit I love, none of them left me thinking positively about them later that day. They were wastes of time and, though it lacks their level of polish, “American Ultra” is a better film with more heart than all of them combined.
Three out of four stars. It won’t be for everybody, but for those willing to jump on a violent indie action comedy that would fit at home in the late 90s or early 00s, this is your cup of tea. “American Ultra” is rated R for violence, language, and drug use.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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