It’s always the quiet ones. As I’ve said before, sometimes the most interesting movies are the ones that slip by mostly unnoticed. In some cases, they’re movies many people didn’t realize were much better than they thought. (I’ve long thought Johnny Mnemonic and Johnny Dangerous both fell into that category.)
Last night I watched American Ultra (2015), directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s either an action-thriller with comedy, or a comedy with action thrills. Those can be hard to pull off well.
I think if you like Quentin Tarantino’s films, you’ll like American Ultra.
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, as Mike Howell and Phoebe Larson, a stoner couple coasting through life (or so it seems). Part of the enjoyment for me was watching these two talented actors work.
It co-stars Connie Britton and Topher Grace, as CIA agents Victoria Lasseter and Adrian Yates, operators of rival spy programs. John Leguizamo has a supporting role as Rose, Mike’s drug-dealing friend, and Bill Pullman puts in a brief appearance at the film’s end.
Director Nima Nourizadeh had only directed one other film, Project X (2012), and so far has only directed two films. He has directed many music videos, which can give one pause (cf. the Charlie’s Angels films directed by McG).
More eyebrow-raising is writer Max Landis. On the plus side he created, wrote, and produced, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency for BBC America. It only ran two seasons, but I liked it a lot.
But Landis also apparently has a significant #MeToo stink on him. There is talk of “open secrets” and allegations of sexual assault. (Max is the son of John Landis; both are powerful white men in Hollywood.)
This is the thing about art sometimes. Is art from an evil source itself necessarily evil? Our current “cancel culture” asserts so. But can we only ever appreciate art from people we like and approve of?
Love the sinner; hate the sin. Appreciate the art; condemn the artist’s sins? But how else to make the point than by not buying what they’re selling?
[Oh, if only humanity could grow up a little and not require these choices. Men! Particularly white men: Seriously, dudes, ya gotta cut this shit out. There’s nothing manly about it — it reveals you as weak, insecure, and ignorant. Real men are smart enough and strong enough to respect and love women. They’re half our world!]
The script was by Shane Black, who wrote the first Lethal Weapon movies. He also wrote Last Action Hero, which I would include with the two Johnny movies I mentioned as an unregarded gem of a film. (One of my favorite Schwarzenegger films because of the clever script. An early meta-story.)
Anyway, both The Long Kiss Goodnight and American Ultra are about a highly trained, highly capable (very dangerous) agent who is living a normal life with no memory of their training or agent history.
For Geena Davis, it was the result of an accident and amnesia.
For Mike Howell (Eisenberg), it’s because he was mind-wiped and stashed away after the failure of the super-agent program he was a part of.
CIA agent Lasseter (Britton) headed that program. When we first encounter her, she’s informed by a mysterious phone call that another CIA team plans to eliminate Howell to wipe the slate clean.
Since Howell was the one success the program had, Lasseter determines to warn Mike.
The mind-wipe has not been ideal for Howell.
For one thing, he’s unable to leave the city, due to panic attacks any time he tries. He feels utterly unworthy of his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart). We meet them as he tries to take Phoebe on a vacation to Hawaii where he intends to propose to her.
Instead, he cowers in the airport bathroom until the plane leaves. Phoebe seems to truly love this guy. She’s disappointed, but understands.
Part of the charm of the film is the love between the two main characters.
At first one can wonder why she sticks with him, although it’s obvious she’s a bit of a stoner loser type, too. (She works in a bail bonds office, although we don’t see much of that.)
The story and, especially, the actors really sell the relationship. Watching them work together depicting a loving, honest, supportive, relationship was definitely part of the pleasure of the film.
When Mike finds “the right moment” to finally propose, it’s both heartwarming, really funny, and kind of a perfect moment.
But it’s hard to call Mike anything but a stoner loser. Phoebe seems to be happily riding beside, but Mike is steering. He’s not even the cool wise kind of schtoner, like The Dude. He’s just… lost and treading water. And applying a constant dose of self-medication.
Until Lasseter shows up at the isolated quick-shop and gas place where Mike works (apparently all alone; we never see a boss or co-worker).
Lasseter, under the guise of buying a cup of instant soup, repeatedly says code phrases designed to re-activate Mike. Camera and editing give us a moment of thinking Mike is experiencing some major mental shift…
Only for him to laugh and ask what the heck she’s talking about. It’s not a cover. The code phrases didn’t work. Disappointed, Lasseter leaves (but hangs around).
Since Lasseter didn’t take the soup with her, Mike makes it for himself. He’s eating his hot soup with a spoon when he notices two guys messing with his car. He walks outside to check it out…
The men approach him, guns drawn, clearly with murderous intent. They accost Mike,… who activates and kills them with hot soup. And a spoon.
Mike is horrified, because he goes back to his “normal” self once the threat is eliminated. He’s not sure how he did what he did, but he’s in a major panic over whatever the hell just happened.
He calls Phoebe, desperate for her to leave work and come help him figure this out. Phoebe arrives just before the local cop, who knows them both from many encounters past. They end up in the police station being interrogated.
Remember, in the first Terminator movie, the scene where Arnold attacks the police station? The CIA tries something like that (but without killer robots, just trained killers).
The movie at this point becomes Mike and Phoebe’s journey to not get killed, which they hope to achieve by running away. There’s no “stand and deliver” moments where desperate heroes turn and attack. It’s more Mike desperately trying not to get killed, and it’s only in moments of extreme peril that his skills kick in.
When they do, he’s pretty awesome. The action scenes are well-staged and fairly believable (except maybe for the trick with the saucepan).
As I say, I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it pretty laugh out loud funny. It does get violent and gory in places (which is common in a lot of action comedies). If Tarantino doesn’t bother you, this won’t.
One reviewer commented that the violence is comic enough to almost feel “cuddly” was the word used. If one is squeamish about blood, it won’t feel so cuddly, but the violent acts themselves are more masked than they are in a lot of films. No loving closeups.
Speaking of reviews, the film didn’t do well with audiences or critics. It currently only has a 43% / 45% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It has a rating of 50 on Metacritic, but it does there have a user rating of 6.2 (of 10). To me that’s a bit of an injustice.
Writer Max Landis was also puzzled, and I think his quote is worth repeating, as it applies to filmmaking and storytelling in general:
“So here’s an interesting question: American Ultra finished dead last at the box office, behind even Mission Impossible and Man From Uncle. American Ultra was also beaten by the critically reviled Hitman Agent 47 and Sinister, despite being a better reviewed film than either, which leads me to a bit of a conundrum: Why? American Ultra had good ads, big stars, a fun idea, and honestly, it’s a good movie. […] Is trying to make original movies in a big way just not a valid career path anymore for anyone but Tarantino and Nolan? That’s the question: Am I wrong? Are original ideas over? I wanted to pose this to the public, because I feel, put lightly, confused.”
I would echo that puzzlement with regard to this film and in general.
Judging the film by its own yardstick, I’m inclined to give it a low Wow! rating. Or definitely a strong Ah! — it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot of fun.
I recommend it.
Stay ultra, my friends!