‘American Ultra’: High Action, Low Results

A common criticism of modern Hollywood is a noticeable lack of original films and an over-reliance on sequels, reboots and spinoffs of pre-existing properties. Although “American Ultra” is an original feature, it struggles to provide a consistently fun and engaging viewing experience, even among one of the weaker summer blockbuster seasons in recent memory.

The film directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis stars Jesse Eisenberg (“Now You See Me”) as Mike Howell, a neurotic stoner living in small town West Virginia with his girlfriend, Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart (“Snow White and the Huntsman”). Much to his surprise, events reveal that Mike is a dangerous government weapon marked for extermination. In order to save himself and his girlfriend Mike must use his recently awakened abilities to fight and survive whatever the CIA sends his way.

Despite its crazy premise, the film’s direction doesn’t do enough to embrace how over-the-top the material is. While the writing suggests colorful characters and crazy sequences, the cinematography and directorial choices opt for a more grounded, almost gritty lens for the writing to work through. The result is a film that seems to be at odds with itself. Scenes that invite more opportunities for directorial liberty, such as the film’s slower romantic scenes, are quite jarring when followed by scenes of over-the-top action and bizarre dialogue. The directorial approach is simply not enough to fully portray the craziness the story demands.

It is difficult to judge most of the performances in the film. Eisenberg and Stewart don’t come off as particularly terrible, but it’s hard to tell if they’re playing their roles exceptionally well. Eisenberg has played similar roles in past films. However, the misaimed direction apparent in the film’s cinematographic tone may have extended to the acting direction. This is not helped by the dialogue. While there are quite a few clever moments in the writing, the dialogue, especially between Eisenberg and Stewart, can dip down to John Green levels of cringe.

One performance does stand out though. Topher Grace is a smarmy, irreverent CIA agent who serves as the film’s primary antagonist. The scenes he appears in are filled with the kind of energy that should have gone into the sense of craziness that the movie is sorely missing.

The easiest explanation for “American Ultra”’s problems would be that Nourizadeh simply did not know what to do with Landis’ script and put the film in a direction unaware of the special attention needed to make a story like “American Ultra” work. In order for something like “American Ultra” to work, it needs to embrace its ridiculousness and run with it. “American Ultra,” however, is aware of its ludicracy only when it is absolutely necessary to the story. Despite some brief bits of genuine cleverness, “American Ultra” serves as an example of a fun action movie that tries not to be a fun action movie in the most counterproductive way.
Rating: 2 out of 5