Wednesday, August 26, 2015

It Came From The Cineplex: American Ultra

American Ultra was written by Max Landis and directed by Nima Nourizadeh.

Landis is the son of director John Landis, and previously wrote the sci-fi found footage film Chronicle. He's also written several DC Comics. Nourizadeh previously directed the teen "party out of control" film Project X.

Take a stoner comedy like Dazed And Confused and combine it with the spy action of The Bourne Identity, mix with some John Wick-style violence and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this film's like.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star in the film, and previously worked together in Adventureland.

SPOILERS, ALTHOUGH IF YOU'VE SEEN THE TRAILER THERE'S LITTLE LEFT TO SPOIL!

The Plot:
Mike Howell (played by Jessie Eisenberg) is an aimless stoner who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart) in the sleepy town of Liman, West Virginia. Mike works in a nearly deserted convenience store, where he whiles away his shifts smoking pot and drawing comics.  

One night a woman enters the store and utters a strange series of words to Mike. When he seems confused, she awkwardly leaves. A few minutes later he sees several burly, black-clad men tampering with his car. When he tells them to knock it off, they move to attack him. Mike moves like a man possessed, easily killing them with just a cup of ramen noodles and a spoon. Needless to say, Mike is astonished by his newfound abilities.

It turns out Mike is a sleeper agent, part of a CIA program called Ultra, headed by a woman named Victoria Lassiter. The program was considered a failure, as Mike was the only successful recruit. The CIA erased his memory and gave him a new life in Liman. Lassiter's travelled to the convenience store to reactivate Mike with a verbal code.

Ultra's now being shut down and replaced by a new program called Tough Guy, headed by CIA douchebag Adrian Yates (played by Topher Grace). Yates wants to eliminate Mike, the sole surviving Ultra asset, which is what prompted Victoria to activate him with the code words.

Mike calls Phoebe and tells her he's just killed several men. She arrives at the convenience store, where the two are arrested. They're attacked at the jail by several of Yates' Tough Guy agents. Mike dispatches them, and he and Phoebe hide out at his friend Rose's house.

They're attacked again at Rose's, and Phoebe reveals she's also a CIA agent. She tells him she started out as his handler, assigned to keep an eye on him, but eventually fell in love with him for real. Phoebe is then captured by Laugher, a Tough Guy agent, and taken back to Yates. Mike is rescued by Lassiter, who tells him he volunteered for the Ultra program in order to avoid life in prison.

Mike contacts Yates and offers to surrender himself at a hardware store if he'll let Phoebe go. Yates agrees and sets a trap for Mike in the store, filling it with Tough Guy agents. Once again, Mike handily kills them all. He's reunited with Phoebe, and the two exit the store. He proposes to her as the two are tased.

Six months later, Mike and Phoebe are working as undercover agents, taking down a drug lord in the Philippines.

Thoughts:
• Sigh... the film starts at the end, as Mike flashes back to everything that happened to him in the previous three days. They pretty much play the entire movie in reverse in the space of thirty seconds. So from the opening frame we know that no matter what happens in the film, he survives. Might as well gather our belongings and go sit in a different theater.

• Where the hell did this movie come from? I didn't see a single trailer, ad or poster for it anywhere. It's a very low budget film (around $12 million) so I guess they just couldn't afford to advertise. Or perhaps there's just no room in theaters for posters this month, as all the available space is taken up by Fox as they desperately beg the public to go see Fant4Stic.

This lack of awareness probably explains why the film barely cleared $5 million in its opening weekend.

• I am not a fan of Jesse Eisengberg, but he did a credible job here. Somehow he managed to convince me he could be a ruthless and resourceful assassin.

• The trailer promised lots of brutal and innovative John Wick action and violence, and it delivered on that promise... sort of. The fight scenes are awesome; but the problem is that they're few and far between. Same goes for the comedy. The trailer makes it look like the film's full of that patented quirky indie film humor, but there's very little of that as well.

The film gingerly dips its toes in both genres, but refuses to dive on in. It's an action comedy that doesn't have anywhere near enough of either.

• Jesus, that is one horrible poster. Not only is it visually unappealing, but it tells you absolutely nothing about the film. When I look at this poster, I think "Stoner Comedy," not "CIA Sleeper Agent Action Film." It's a complete and utter failure in every measurable sense. Think about how many action movie fans probably passed on this film because they saw this poster and thought, "That's not the movie for me." No wonder it's tanking at the box office.

Even worse, they created one of these printed turds for both the leads!


This third version is a vast improvement and conveys the tone of the film much better than those miserable portrait posters.

• I'm not a fan of the title either, as it's about as vague as the stoner poster. Yes, "Ultra" is the name of the CIA program that created Mike, but you don't know that until you watch the film.

• For the record, the code phrase that activates Mike is "Chariot progressive. Listen. Mandelbrot set is in motion. Echo Choir has been breached, we are fielding the ball."

• Was Jesse Eisdenberg wearing a wig in this film? If not, then his natural hair looks exactly like a bad synthetic wig.

What the hell happened to movie and TV wigs? When I was younger I never noticed them in movies and on TV. These days I can spot them a mile off. They're all cheap looking and obvious. For example, LOST had some of the worst wigs I've seen outside a pop-up Halloween store. Did our society somehow forget how to make realistic wigs, the way we forgot the formula for Greek Fire?

I wonder if wigs have always looked fake, and we're just now noticing it because we have hi-def TVs and film now?

American Ultra is an interesting mashup of two genres, but unfortunately doesn't fully commit to either. I give it a C+.

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