The 400-Word Review: American Ultra
By Sean Collier
August 24, 2015
The plot of American Ultra is so close to that of The Bourne Identity that I’m almost convinced the film was intended as a slightly-askew parody.
In the comedy from director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis, a highly-trained, remarkably deadly covert government agent has no memory of his past. When some toughs arrive, weapons in hand, he effortlessly dispatches them, despite not fully grasping what’s going on or why he’s so good at killing people.
In The Bourne Identity, every word of that description also applies.
In American Ultra, though, the clueless agent is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a shiftless, daydreaming stoner killing time in a small West Virginia town. He’s got a hopelessly devoted girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), who doesn’t mind that he has a violent panic attack every time he travels beyond the city limits. When Mike calls Phoebe to tell her that two goons are dead in the parking lot of the convenience store where he works, though, she begins to take charge.
To say much about the supporting cast would be to give away the game, which I won’t do (despite the fact that American Ultra spoils itself by way of a lame-brained wrap-around plot structure). So I’ll simply say that ample credit should go to Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Tony Hale and Walton Goggins.
So it may not be particularly original, but is it any good? Well, there’s certainly plenty of good about it. Nourizadeh uses violence and mayhem with reckless abandon; this is a depraved, R-rated movie for adults, and it’s proud of that fact. The look of it is impressive as well, as cinematographer Michael Bonvillain has a comic book artist’s eye for odd angles, deformative lighting and dramatic staging.
Landis’s dialogue is fine, but the structure of American Ultra might’ve benefited from another pass; in addition to the aforementioned self-spoiling, which nearly ruins the story, the second act drags as Mike refuses to accept the world around him, a technique that always feels more like stalling than realism.
The best part of the film is the confident and funny performance by Stewart. Few performers have improved as much as she has; the endlessly-mocked Twilight series may have derailed her development, but she’s turned into a powerhouse in the years since that franchise’s conclusion. Stewart carries the film, and she’s the biggest reason to buy a ticket.
My Rating: 6/10
Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at pittsburghmagazine.com/afterdark