‘American Ultra’ is a movie that is not intended but ultimately plagued by his dependency on themes removed from relevance by several decades. As a high concept action/comedy that sets out the combined and ambitiously eclectic set of film genres including but not limited to romantic comedy and espionage thriller as a vehicle for a couple of popular young stars in Hollywood. There are rare occasions for such a mélange can be made to work but unfortunately, this movie fall short of achieving that goal. If this film was released in the late 60s early 70s the might have stood a better chance of success. The idea of a hapless stoner being a highly trained sleeper agent unaware of his mission until activated was best suited for the Cold War period of history. What is presented here is an odd mixture of ‘Manchurian Candidate’ and any Cheech and Chong flick. Even retold as a comedy having an enemy combatant psychologically rendered in hibernation until activated by a preset series of commands was considered is somewhat realistic threat back when the United States and the Soviet Union constantly teetering on the precipice of nuclear annihilation. This is a time when Communists were considered to be the epitome of evil. They are seen as godless, determined to eliminate the American way of life. A large portion of this paranoia was in the common belief that the Communist has developed tactics of brainwashing, able to control the mind at the deepest levels. The same era was greatly influenced by the aftermath of the ‘Summer of Love’, but many young people were experimenting with numerous psychotropic substances, the most popular bridge was marijuana. Having come of age at that time, members of my generation are prepared to understand the fundamental concept of this film; juxtaposing mind control mind alteration. Since the film is marketed towards the youth of today it is distinctly possible that there is a lot of identification what is actually being referenced in the story.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is, to put it bluntly, no pun intended; a stoner despite his having reached the legal age of adulthood remains quite content to work at a convenience store. Residing in the small town of town of Liman, West Virginia which is longtime girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), is not quite found the proper time and place to propose marriage to her. It’s not for lack of loving her or even the desire to formalize the relationship. Every time he attempts to propose to her he is inexplicably stricken with a panic attack so severe he cannot proceed. While most were just consider this a typical male reaction commitment phobia or brain dysfunction has long been disrupted by the near constant innovation of pot fumes, but as the audience is to find out this is far from the case. We get to watch at the sink ships to CIA headquarters in Langley Virginia. There, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), is quite distraught over the failure of the project he is working on for many years; ‘Ultra’. The agency has decided to favor the program created by rival, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). This project, ‘Tough Guy’ is not really been adopted one of its first missions is to eliminate the sole survivor of Project Ultra. Understandably in order for this prompt progress they can be no other option but that last deep cover agent be none other than Mike. Lasseter may work for the CIA but she still has a modicum of humanity remaining. Knowing that in his deactivated state Mike would be completely defenseless against the Tough Guy agent she merely flies to West Virginia in order to activate Mike. At least it has long dormant skills and instincts the befuddled work would stand somewhat of a fighting chance.
That exposition is fine as far as the deep cover/brainwashed agent plot thread is concerned. Now it’s time for the script to address the implications required for a stoner flick. Lasseter does give the code words to Mike but in his dazed and confused state is unable to comprehend them. At least that is what was supposed to believe until he happens across a pair of Tough Guys planting a bomb in his car. Suddenly, the long buried conditioning snaps on and Mike is able to incapacitate and kill both of the agents. Within the context of a movie central premise is diminished capacity due to long-term intoxication; it doesn’t take much to cause Mike to completely freak out. Having killed two people is bad enough what is truly upsetting is that Mike was able to use martial arts techniques and the closest use of account to such training, as far as he knows, is getting horrible watching a Bruce Lee movie. Immediately reconnects with Phoebe and the children are arrested for the murders. In this small town a major felony such as murder is unheard of is a great concern for the authorities.
In light of this failure eight dispatches another pair of agents, among the best in the program; Laugher (Walton Goggins) and Crane (Monique Ganderton). Expecting no resistance from the local police department the pair was brazen enough to attempt terminating Mike and Phoebe while they are being held in the police station. The pair usually exceptionally successful in such ‘wet work’ but much of their consternation the stoners managed to escape. Again within the framework of a stoner movie there’s only one place such a pair of fugitives would run, Mike’s pot dealer, Rose (John Leguizamo). They are both good customers and friends for many years, Rose agrees to hide them. Yates realizes that it is unable to eliminate the sole remaining agent of ‘Ultra’ it would cast severe doubts on his program by the management ‘Tough Guys’ project in jeopardy. Desperate for results Yates fabricates a story that Mike and Phoebe are carrying a deadly disease, Super Typhoid. The picture is widely distributed as the town is placed on the quarantine lockdown. At this point most of the major pieces are in play in the throat can proceed with the remaining improbable but mandatory array of action sequences.
This is the sophomore opus for emerging filmmaker, Nima Nourizadeh. His first offering, ‘Project X’, a reasonably successful ‘Teen Party Gone out Of Control’, flick released back in 2012. I do have to give credit to young filmmaker who takes on a project that is beyond his current grasp. This is apparently the case with this film. As just pointed out, the two major themes story that is suited for a far different social political environment that is currently prevalent. As it stands there is inherent difficulty in combining the dramatic themes such as mind control with an ambition less started suddenly finding out he’s a highly trained assassin. Upon further consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that there are not many seasoned directors who could’ve fed much better under the circumstances. The screenwriter, Max Landis, has been working diligently on his style of providing scriptural short films of various types. He has been quite literally around the process of creating movies entire life. As the son of director John Landis and costume designer Deborah Nadoolman has been exposed to a highly creative set of parents with his father responsible for both an iconic horror movie, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ one of the best action comedies featuring alumni of Saturday Night Live, ‘The Blues Brothers’. This younger Landis is still working on sharpening his scripting style in this undertaking provided him environment rich with potential in a suitable level of difficulty.
The movie does have a cast several fill seats in the theater and cajole people into purchasing the film for their homes. Jesse Eisenberg is undoubtedly one of the rising stars of his generation. Already he has an Academy award nomination under his belt for his performance of Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network’. Resisting the comfort and security of typecasting, Eisenberg has been steadily experimenting with different types of balls greatly expanding both the depth and scope of his acting abilities. Performances including a post-apocalyptic zombie killer to a criminally minded illusionist in one of the most famous arch villains of all times, Lex Luthor, is establish himself old enough so that his career would not be severely damaged by returning to a stoner character such as this. Kristen Stewart has been trying to distance herself from the notoriously wording performances of the ‘Twilight Saga’. Prior to that long commitment, Ms. Stewart was working on establishing herself in the eclectic arena of independent film. This has demonstrated that she is able to take on a number of personas successfully as demonstrated in the biopic ‘The Runaways’ in the poignant character study, ‘Welcome to the Rileys’. The supporting cast of several steady journeymen character actors such as Connie Britton, Walter Goggins and Bill Pullman the film manages to retain enough spot to carry a through to the end credits. One performance that is noteworthy is that of John Leguizamo. This performer is so seasoned as both a comedic actor and account director with an understanding of human nature that his inclusion in the film is always a positive.