By Adrian Lopez
American Ultra, Lionsgate Films
Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart
We've been saying on the podcast that we seem to be in the year of the spy. We've had a handful of incredible spy genre movie, so I was excited to check out American Ultra. The TV spots and trailers present a unique idea: Eisenberg plays lovable pothead Mike Howell, who, unbeknownst to himself, is actually a government agent lethally trained by the CIA through a now-defunct top-secret project. The "sleeper agent" idea is incredibly attractive, yet rarely done in Hollywood (although, oddly enough, AU's opening weekend buddy Agent 47 also has a sleeper agent), so I was excited to dive in.
The film's conflict arises when the CIA attempts to get rid of traces of the aforementioned secret project, driving the project's previous director Victoria Lasseter (Britton) to activate Mike Howell (Eisenberg) so he has a fighting chance to survive. What follows is an incredibly fast-paced and gratuitous shoot-em-up as Eisenberg and Stewart fight to survive.
The most obvious: Eisenberg and Stewart are adorable together. There is a fantastic chemistry between the two I had a blast watching. It could very well come from their time together in Adventureland. Whatever the reason, it definitely endeared me to Stewart a little more. I've only known her as dull and dry. I really enjoyed her character in this: very passionate and fierce. Eisenberg, of course, is the heavy hitter here. His panic attacks are believable, and his anxiety-filled line delivery is on-point as always.
I also enjoy the movie getting right into the thick of it fairly quickly, without ever really stumbling on plot minutia. If you're going to check out this movie for action, you will not be disappointed. Every Eisenberg "sleeper agent" fighting scene is beautifully choreographed and deliciously ends in a bloody pulp.
When I say "incredibly fast paced", I mean it. Almost to a jarring degree. While it's nice there's very little plot to trip over, some breathers for a little story fleshing would've been nice. The action gets so heavy handed, it's almost parody at times. You can't help but wonder if Nourizadeh and Landis were actually trying to take potshots at the genre instead of embracing it as all our other spy movies have been doing this year.
While Eisenberg and Stewart were fantastic, and I gotta blow kisses to my boys John Leguizamo and Tony Hale, the rest of the cast was... eh. I sat through most of the movie replacing each actor with another I thought could've done a better job. A great injustice, in my opinion, was not utilizing the incredible Tony Hale more. He has such great comedic chops, but was simply used as a pawn in the paper thin plot of the movie.
The entire vibe of the movie kept throwing me off as well. We'd have these great intimate moments with Eisenberg and Stewart, where I couldn't help but be reminded of Warm Bodies: a fantastic and unique story idea is currently unfolding, and nestled inside there like a little treat is this great romance story. Their discussions always felt genuine and weighty. We would then cut over to CIA happenings and Topher Grace's character always shook me out of that. Anything with Grace immediately brought the film's vibe down to a SciFi Channel original movie. I kid you not. The score was also partially to blame for that, having great pieces for the intimate scenes, then some bloated stereotypical "bad guy" music for CIA scenes.
The trailers are worse! They give this illusion you're gonna see a film that's like (insert your favorite spy movie here) and Pineapple Express combined. In reality, the pot usage is pretty tame, nothing over-the-top happens, and there's comedic relief, but I wouldn't go so far as to say this is a comedy.
Lastly, and I think this is definitely personal opinion: I was incredibly sad to figure out -SPOILERS- that Stewart was a CIA agent well before she admits it -SPOILERS. It hits that no-no area for me where a movie can't be that predictable. Maybe it's all the spy movies I've been watching, but I was calling it right after they get attacked for the first time. Now, why would I say it's personal opinion? I think looking back, they tossed you a breadcrumb trail that may very well be fun to watch knowing she reveals herself as an agent later. Kinda like watching Fight Club and realizing you could scrub out Brad Pitt from the entire movie and it would still make sense. So maybe it's predictable or maybe it's nice foreshadowing.
This is not The Manchurian Candidate x Pineapple Express. Trailers suck and are very misleading nowadays. But the unique "sleeper agent seed" remains. I just wish it hadn't zoomed by me at breakneck speed. I wished the smaller roles I was excited to see people play were utilized a bit more. It's frustrating, in that "The Purge sounded neat, but sucked" kinda sense to see an interesting story idea not fully realized. Instead, it's half-baked. However, sometimes you're really hungry, and half baked will do: Leguizamo's getting work again and Stewart's not so bad.
- I was able to take a gamble on this movie thanks to MoviePass. It's like Netflix for movie theaters for just $30 a month. It's how we watch so many movies for site reviews and the podcast. I've been on it for three years and highly recommend it. Try it FREE for two weeks to see what you're missing: click here!