Movie Review: American Ultra
By Ben Gruchow
August 25, 2015
Writing negative reviews for low-budget August releases from quasi-independent studios is something I don’t like to do. Sometimes, there’ll come a movie that really deserves a good knock; most of the time, though, it feels like kicking someone when they’re already down. But sometimes a movie comes out and surprises you with its scrappiness and the fun it has within its trappings and low expectations. American Ultra is one of these: it’s funnier and more earnest than I expected, and it’s got considerably more on its mind than the bland trailers and idiotic posters would have you believe.
The story is a total mess: motivations and incidents are assigned more or less randomly, and the entirety of any given character’s inner monologue is structured around whether or not a good gag can be pulled out of the moment. American Ultra reminds me a lot of 2006’s Slither in how fundamentally flawed it is as a narrative; in both films, the roster of characters can and do resemble actual people - and can draw what resembles coherent philosophy out of them - while pretty clearly existing only to serve the gag.
The gag here, of course, being a scruffy and laconic take on the Bourne storyline, where an average guy turns out to be a sleeper agent, trained in whatever lethal skill the screenplay requires of him at any given time. This guy is Mike (Jesse Eisenberg). The other principal player is Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who plays his girlfriend as a collection of pauses and gentle corrections. I will not identify the party on the other end of the situation; I have a feeling the movie cares less than I do about who’s pulling the strings. There is Connie Britton, and she is mostly good; there is someone else, and we’ll come back to him.
One of the other ways that the movie reminds me of Slither is in its tonal lightness, mashed together with a B-movie anything-goes absurdity. That movie understood how a grossly deformed monster knocking over a table lamp could work as a gag if you framed and timed it just so; American Ultra is a movie that understands how a formidable woman in sunglasses can work as a gag if you frame and time it just so. The key that both movies exhibit is that these gags work without sacrificing their innate horror (in Slither’s case) or their innate tension (here). Both movies have the courage of their convictions, and stick with their internal logic and mood more or less all the way to the end.
American Ultra gets more points for the way it sets up its pieces; there is a methodical and deliberate pace to the early scenes, aided greatly by a precise sense of timing on the part of editing team Andrew Marcus and Bill Pankow (Pankow is a frequent collaborator of Brian de Palma; I have no idea what he’s doing here, but his expertise and sensibilities show in a big way, and half the reason American Ultra makes it so close to success is because of what he brings to the table).