Since the days of when spy movies in the late 80’s were on the decline, filmmakers have been trying to give a shot in the arm to the dying genre. This spawned a sub-genre of spy comedies, of which there were a few notable entries. Films such as “True Lies”, “Grosse Pointe Blank”, and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” all found a way to blend humor and action and make it all really entertaining. The latest by writer Max Landis (Chronicle) and director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) “American Ultra” attempts to follow in the footsteps of the afore mentioned films, but it is as memorable?
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner with no ambition who suffers from anxiety when it comes to leaving his small town. The only bright spot in his life is his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who loves him despite his hang-ups. Meanwhile, in the super secret ranks of the C.I.A. Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton) is informed that her hidden agent, Mike is scheduled for termination for some unknown reason. The operation is headed by Yates (Topher Grace) a sleazy ladder climbing psycho who has his own killer agents who plan to take out Mike and anyone who stands in their way. Lasseter decides to activate Mike using familiar spy code-talk to snap him into killer mode. When it kicks in, Jason Bourne-style, Mike must survive using his new skills and also save his girlfriend.
I’m all for original attempts at genre blending, and from what I know of Max Landis, his style can be a bit cluttered. Where “Chronicle” mixed found-footage, with superheroes, and a dose of teen angst for a great film. In “American Ultra” the tone is all over the place as it is unable to land most of it’s jokes and it’s graphic violence feels overdone. I hate having to compare it to a film from earlier in the year “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, but it does nothing as original or fun. And pardon the pun, but none of the cast really lights it up, Eisenberg and Stewart are really the only ones who do their best with the material on the page. Speaking of ‘lighting it up’ even that part of the film, where most of the marketing centers on, the drug use is minor at best. So it keeps it out of “Pineapple Express” territory, again another film that mashed the genres of buddy movie and action and still managed to deliver huge laughs throughout.
There are so many plots here, that none of them really come together, and they don’t focus on any particular thread long enough to make you care about any of the characters. Which is a shame when you have decent actors like John Leguizamo, and Walter Goggins as Laugher (guess what he does) who can’t bring anything to their parts. Most of the time Connie Britton looks confused, and for some reason Tony Hale is in the movie, and is better in any of his five minutes on “Veep” than he is in this whole movie. In the end “American Ultra” is very scatterbrained, much like its writer Landis. Which could have been a good thing, especially when you hear his good ideas for existing properties like Ghostbusters and Peter Pan, and his awesome take on James Bond, that they would never make but would be the best thing ever. Listen to his interview on the Nerdist podcast to hear what I mean. It just does not work this time around.
So I can not recommend this one, which is unfortunate because I really wanted to like it, and it may still find its fan base, but again it’s a little too out there for its own good and all it did for me was make me want to watch this blend of genres when Schwarzenegger, Cusack, or Pitt were in the lead.
–Robert L. Castillo