Saturday, 5 September 2015

Film Review: American Ultra

Remember kids; bombs and bongs don't mix. American Ultra is a slacker/stoner comedy starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart that sees the former rediscover his past as a skilled CIA agent after his subconscious memory is triggered. 

Mike (Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Stewart) are two loved-up stoners whose life in the sleepy West Virginian town of Liman is plodding along just nicely. Working in a crummy convenience store, Mike is happy spending his spare time curled up on the sofa with a blunt and an omelette - just don't speak to him about leaving town. He can't stomach that, and suffers a panic attack at the thought.

However, all this changes when Victoria (Connie Britton), a CIA operative, strolls into his store and utters a series of code words that trigger some latent abilities in Mike's brain. Suddenly in the possession of awesome martial arts skills and a mind that runs a million miles a minute, Mike poses a threat to people like CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who would much rather see sleeper agents such as Mike firmly out of the picture.

With a wacky premise such as that, American Ultra feels very much like a blend of the Bourne films with Harold and Kumar. It doesn't take itself too seriously, especially when it comes to character's like Topher Grace's villainous government pencil-pusher or John Leguizamo's thuggish drug dealer. It's like Chuck, but with a lot more shotguns, spliffs and air strikes.

Eisenberg is pretty good in the lead; his distant and gawkish nature make him suited to the role. It's nothing new to him though - this is the umpteenth time we've seen Eisenberg play the nervy nerd role. Instead, the highlight for me was easily Kristen Stewart (that's a sentence I thought I'd never include in a review!). Stewart's role is a lot more substantial than I originally thought, and it turns out that this is actually a really good thing. Seriously, Stewart gives a great performance in this film, one that comes with a good balance of whimsy and emotional weightiness. More often than not, she's the funniest thing going on in a scene, especially when Eisenberg is freaking out and they're trying to get a handle on the situation.

The main issue with American Ultra is the uneven tone; director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis never seem get into a groove that the film feels comfortable in, and the plot jumps around like a five-year old who has overdosed on blue Smarties as a result. From heartfelt romance to screwball comedy and hard-R action and gore, American Ultra tries to cover all its bases at the detriment of holding onto a firm focus. Each approach has its own merits, but when they're stacked alongside one another in a 90-minute comedy, the end result is something that is all over the shop.

Eisenberg and Stewart make a really great on-screen couple, so the film is strongest when the two share the screen and are given the room to act. I really liked the first act of this film where we saw the two as a couple just living their everyday life; it felt real and authentic.

However, I really didn't buy Eisenberg as a dangerous sleeper agent with the ability to snap necks like toothpicks; the final act of this film cranks up the violence and is nowhere near as effective at pulling this off. Not as slick as an actual action film, and not as funny as something like Hot Fuzz, American Ultra builds towards this gigantic showdown in a supermarket that feels like an entirely different film. Nourizadeh dials up the gore and Eisenberg takes on goons with everything from meat cleavers to actual frozen slabs of meat. It's fun, but tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.

The Verdict: 6/10

A strange beast this one; the premise is killer, but the execution is scattershot and fails to make the most of it. Eisenberg doesn't do more than the bare minimum, with Stewart and Britton actually picking up the slack. The central romance is actually really sweet and layered, whilst the action is ugly and unnecessarily messy. Check it out if spies with a twist are your thing.

American Ultra is in cinemas across Australia now. 


  1. I couldn't agree more, man. Totally uneven and trying a bit too hard. Great review!

    1. Thanks man! At least Stewart is making some more interesting choices, eh? :)

  2. I'm looking forward to this, despite that it seems uneven. I like Eisenberg and Stewart's on-screen chemistry in Adventureland, and I hope it plays off well here. Great review though!

    1. Thanks! I think I might enjoy this one a little more on a rewatch now that I know what to expect :)

  3. I'll probably watch it on DVD since I likeb oth Eisenberg and Stewart, but I won't get my hopes up for it. Nice write up!

  4. Yeah, I'm with Brittani. This film begs to be rented, and rent it I WILL.

    Good post, man! (I'm taking you up on that tour, someday )



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