American Ultra

american-ultra

Movie a Day Blog doesn’t know what to make of AMERICAN ULTRA (2015, Theatrical), it’s such an oddball film.

An uneasy marriage of stoner humor and extreme violence (hence the only justification for one of the worst titles of the year), ULTRA raises the question that similar films such as PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008) and KICK-ASS (2010, Movie a Day 5/22/10) and its sequel (2013) pose: why is it comedic to see someone’s brains blown out from the back of their head?

Maybe this works for Millennials, but I and my cohort feel more comfortable with a more uniform tone to today’s film comedies. Instead, in ULTRA we go from Cheech and Chong to Jason Bourne within a span of minutes, and poor Jesse Eisenberg looks as troubled as his character Mike Howell is for the entire span of the film.

The story is standard government conspiracy nonsense: some implausible experiment with genetically modified humans goes terribly awry, blah, blah, blah.

Thanks to the initially energetic performances of Eisenberg and his girlfriend, the too-patient Kristen Stewart still trying to redeem her TWILIGHT (2008) origins, ULTRA gets off to an engaging and unusual start.

Once Connie Britton turns up to say the magic words, Eisenberg becomes a superhuman stoner, an odd blend of cool moves and stunned expressions. This is either the best or worst high possible, but ULTRA can’t seem to make up its mind which it prefers.

So the tone lurches as drunkenly as Eisenberg’s beat-up, bloodied and generally put-upon character. He’s the guy everyone’s after, either to save him or kill him, and there are no spoiler alerts necessary here, because the plot is ever-predictable.

The screenplay was written by Max Landis, whom I met when he came to check out the film school at UNCSA where I teach. I was friendly with his father John Landis and had suggested our program but Max passed on the school.

It turned out he didn’t need us. He wrote the highly original and successful sci-fi indie CHRONICLE (2012, Movie a Day 7/4/12) ) and just directed the upcoming ME HIM HER (2015), which he also penned.

The best aspect of ULTRA is Landis’ script, which British director Nima Nourizadeh doesn’t seem to have a firm grip on. Topher Grace’s CIA villain is played way over the top from the first frame on, and once the major plot twist is revealed, Stewart’s performance begins to look like a long slog.

At least AMERICAN ULTRA keeps you guessing about what’s going to come next, somone’s teeth getting knocked out in a decorative pattern, or Eisenberg delivering a rim-shot comedy line. I felt like Jake Gittes at the end of CHINATOWN, slapping Faye Dunaway as she alternately confessed that she was John Huston’s daughter and lover. Make up your mind!

Being unpredictably hyper-violent is not a virtue in contemporary cinema. Maybe this is an outgrowth of the action movie as graphic novel, because many of these bloody effects first appeared in the new generation of graphic comic books.

By the end of AMERICAN ULTRA, everyone just seems  weary. Especially those of us who are tiring of this inextricable link between killing them with laughter and just plain killing them.

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