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Ultra Stupidity

 95 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh 
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
American Ultra

If watching a couple of the cinematic “dogs” of the dog days of summer have taught me anything, it’s this: writing or directing a found footage film does not qualify someone to make a standard movie with quality actors and a big budget. Last week’s example was Fantastic Four, whose directorial and screenwriting reins were handed to Josh Trank, known only for the found footage film, Chronicle. The result: disaster. This week, the screenwriter of Chronicle, Max Landis, and the director of another found footage film, Project X, Nima Nourizadeh, team up for American Ultra. Care to guess the outcome?


American Ultra can best be described as an attempt to cross The Bourne Identity with a Cheech and Chong movie, the main difference being that Ultra’s co-star, Kristen Stewart, is infinitely easier on the eyes than either Cheech or Chong were. She’s also a much better actress than Cheech and Chong were (of course, technically, they were actors), as is her co-star Jesse Eisenberg. Sadly, American Ultra doesn’t give them enough of a chance to actually do anything with their roles.


The premise of American Ultra isn’t bad. A top-secret government program creates a highly trained U.S. agent then erases his memory and plants him in deep cover in a podunk town awaiting a mission. Further, to increase the agent’s effectiveness, the government has him become a stoner slacker who works as a clerk at a quickie mart and whose only real goals in life are getting high and getting it on with his girlfriend. The slacker is Mike Howell (Eisenberg), and the girlfriend is Phoebe Larson (Stewart), who works as a bail bondsman, but who also happens to be Mike’s CIA handler, keeping an eye on him to make sure he’s ready when needed.


Again, that’s not a bad premise, but Ultra goes downhill from there. It seems like the new man in charge at the CIA, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), an arrogant, misogynistic twit, has decided to shut the sleeper program down for reasons that, as usual, don’t make a whole lot of sense. But rather than just allow Mike to go on with his low key lifestyle in peace, Yates dispenses rapidly escalating numbers of hit men who are part of his own secret training project to dispense with Mike. I’m not sure what the difference between Mike and Yates’s hit men is, other than they fact that they aren’t very good. However, since Yates’s predecessor Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) started the program that trained Mike, and Yates is a complete woman-hating bureaucratic idiot, it makes perfect cinematic sense to back his loser of a program.


I’m not really sure what type of movie Nourzideh intended American Ultra to be, but it’s largely an incoherent mess. There’s plenty of fairly serious R-rated violence in the movie, with several sympathetic characters meeting rather grisly ends. Add the violence to the fact that there’s rather little actual humor in the movie. and Ultra’s violence is often head scratchingly bad. Nor does it help that Nourzideh had no idea how to stage an action scene. Some scenes are clever, but then Nourzideh decides to rely on using really slow motion to try to cover up the fact that other gimmicks Mike uses to emerge triumphant are both physically and physiologically impossible.


The fact that the movie isn’t at all funny doesn’t keep a talented supporting cast from trying to be funny and trying and trying. John Leguizamo as a buddy of Mike’s is annoying, and the film actually succeeds in making the marvelously talented Walton Goggins look completely lost. He plays one of the hit men going after Mike, and he alternates between giggling uncontrollably and sobbing about how his life is a complete mess.


Surprisingly, Eisenberg and Stewart emerge relatively unscathed here. They are both playing to their strengths (except when Eisenberg’s stunt doubles go into action), and they have quite good chemistry together. Their romance would actually work in a lot of movies, with Mike’s character flaws (actually remnants of his programming, such as an inability to leave town without breaking down emotionally) making him rather endearing in Eisenberg’s typical “ah shucks” hangdog manner. One wishes for a film in which they could deliver their lines to each other without having to stay behind cover to avoid being shot.


Massive logical flaws are par for the course in films like American Ultra, but in the better thrillers, audiences don’t think about them until the next day. Here, nothing made much sense, even on a movie level. When Yates decides to order a drone strike to take out the town, that pretty much did it for me. Even before that, the logic of having a sleeper agent who can’t be properly activated doesn’t make sense. As the head of the project, Lasseter should have been able to transform Mike into a fully aware terminator type, rather than a slacker with some obscenely fast reflexes.


This movie needed an actor with the right touch for physical humor to make it work and that’s not Jesse Eisenberg. A young Jackie Chan would have been perfect because he mastered the art of being incredibly adept while appearing completely uncoordinated. That type of stumbling into the right martial arts move might have made American Ultra successful. Instead, audiences are left with Jesse Eisenberg looking acutely uncomfortable in his role mixed with a few rear shots of an obvious double doing some real stunt work.


The main lesson to be learned from American Ultra is that a two-hour movie is far more than an elevator pitch. Once the director and writer made their pitch, the logical question is “then what happens?” Unfortunately, the answer proves to be that the two leads pretty much sit around for most of the movie waiting for the bad guys to show up and conveniently get themselves killed. Sadly, they are still sitting around long after American Ultra itself dies.

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American Ultra (2015) on IMDb