American Ultra’s protagonist Mike Howell is like Jason Bourne, only a little more dazed and confused.
Doesn’t that sound like a great premise for a movie?!
This was a tough review to write because I had a hard time figuring out exactly what this movie lacks. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a CIA sleeper agent who has been living his life in a small town, smoking pot, hanging out with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and working at a crummy convenience store. He has no childhood memories and suffers from paralyzing anxiety at the thought of ever traveling outside his small-town, which prevents him from even leaving the airport for a planned romantic getaway to Hawaii with Phoebe. This is how the film opens. Then one day, while working at the convenience store, a woman tells Howell a cryptic message which seemingly unlocks his hidden powers to fight and kill like nobody’s business. Hilarity ensues.
Even while writing out the film’s plot, it is clear to me that American Ultra had the potential to be a really great movie. I mean, a dazed-and-confused Jason Bourne sounds amazing! And even beyond the cool premise, American Ultra has a great cast. I was excited to see Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg on-screen together again. Adventureland is one of my favorite movies, and I think Stewart and Eisenberg have surprisingly great chemistry. Their love story in American Ultra plays out as sweet and sincere, even as crazy-ass shit explodes all around them. There’s a great scene toward the end of the movie where Phoebe tells Mike that she was “always the tree,” playing on an earlier metaphor that Mike presented to her stating that he is the tree that stands in her way as she tries to progress in life. It’s a beautiful moment. These are two damaged and flawed people who love each other, and there are several moments between the two of them that really shine. Unrelated to the romance plot, I also thought all the fight scenes in the movie were really violent and bloody, so for those who like that sort of things, this film more than delivers. Watching Howell kill a man with a spoon in a deserted parking lot is movie magic. So what’s missing? What prevented this movie from meeting its potential?
First, the soundtrack was forgettable. Adventureland had a great soundtrack, and I think that the importance of good music in a movie should not be underestimated. All the greats have memorable songs and scores that move the film along, and in the best cases, become integral plot points. In the case of Adventureland, the movie would not have been as successful without “Rock me Amadeus” playing incessantly at the theme park, Husker Du’s “Don’t Want to Know if You are Lonely” playing in the car when Em drives Brennan home for the first time, “Don’t Dream it’s Over” playing as Brennan and Em share a romantic moment over Fourth of July fireworks, and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” serving as the musical representation of Brennan’s ultimate coming of age. American Ultra had no such moments.
Second, I wasn’t thrilled with a lot of the supporting cast. I love Walton Goggins and was excited to see him, but I think his character (a man with psychotic tendencies also trained to be a killing machine) was supposed to serve as comic relief, only those “comedic” moments came off as grating and annoying. Same with John Leguizamo. His drug-dealer character serves no real purpose. I think he was also supposed to serve as comic relief, but again, I didn’t find myself laughing. Topher Grace’s character was really smarmy and annoying, but frankly, none of these character representations are likely the fault of the actors. These are writing flaws.
Ultimately, maybe, much like Mike Howell himself, American Ultra suffers from an identity crisis. Anyone who saw the movie trailer would have assumed the film was a comedy, but the comedy was largely lacking. I think this film would have been better off going in a True Romance direction. To me, the really interesting parts of the film were the action and love story. There was more to explore there. The mere idea of a stoner loser as a CIA operative, unbeknownst to even himself, is funny enough. Much of the more peripheral attempts to make the audience laugh simply came off as annoying distractions.