Good acting almost salvages “American Ultra.” Almost...
It seems most people harbor hero fantasies. Nothing livens up a pointless meeting up more than imagining how one might stop an armed assailant as he’s threatening the office secretary. White-collar America is endlessly boring (blue-collar America is probably not far behind), which is part of the reason the entertainment industry has such a handle on our inner thoughts and desires—we express our boredom through the types of entertainment we consume.
Kim Kardasian isn’t famous because she’s talented. She’s famous because there is a large subsection of the population who live vicariously through her absurd excesses and family drama. So when a film like “American Ultra” hits the theaters, there’s always going to be an audience for it.
Who doesn’t hope they were secretly enrolled in a CIA program that gives them superhero-like abilities? Who doesn’t want to one day wake up from their mundane, ordinary life to be thrust into excitement? Stories like these are adolescent wish fulfillment at its finest. Anyone who peruses the young adult section at their local bookstore will find series after series that repeats these same tropes.
“American Ultra” is an attempt to comment on this trend, to laugh at its absurdity, while delivering an effective action movie. Had it committed more to the humor side, it might have been more effective.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) works at a convenience store in West Virginia, smokes a lot of dope, and has a variety of anxiety problems. His girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is longsuffering, understanding that he can’t leave their small town without having a serious panic attack, even when he plans to propose in Hawaii. They live together in a dirty house while Mike draws comics of a crime-fighting ape and struggles to make coherent decisions—until he is activated at work by a middle-aged CIA operative who speaks nonsense while buying noodles and milk.
The scenes of Mike and Phoebe’s domestic bliss are interspersed with footage at CIA headquarters, where we learn of various experiments conducted on American citizens with names like “Wise Man” and “Tough Guy.” (The title “American Ultra” itself is a nod to the infamous MK Ultra experiments from the 1950s.)
Mike has certain abilities unlocked by the voicing of a code and is forced on a trail of destruction across his town as the government tries and fails to shut him down. Much of the humor is found in how his bumbling mannerisms are offset by his cold-blooded killing. The government here is simultaneously all-knowing and ineffective, as one aspect appears to know nothing of what the other is doing.
When the movie works, it works well. If the writers had stayed closer to the parody aspect of the film instead of the action movie repetition it allows itself to fall into, “American Ultra” could be a wonderful late summer hit. But the film makes the mistake of telling rather than showing.
Instead of letting us see the increasing panic and bewilderment that is overtaking Mike’s story, the filmmakers chose to let us into the background of the big picture, which diminishes how we experience the story. A good mystery should never be fully explained.
The audience should have the same experience Mike does, following the same narrative arc. The focus should have been more character-driven, rather than plot-centered. As it is, the film is too easily distracted.
Luckily, there is a strong cast to make up for what is lost in the storytelling. Great casting can’t make up for a weak story, but good acting can at least soften the blow. Eisenberg, Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton and Walter Goggins are all actors at the top of their game, so even though the story isn’t as interesting as it hopes to be, the film is not boring to watch.
Given that the run time is only around 90 minutes, “American Ultra” doesn’t wear out its welcome so much as it simply doesn’t live up to its potential.
The spy thriller is a longstanding tradition in American film. It’s not one that is going to vanish any time soon. Nor should it. While we might not need 10 reboots of “The Bourne Identity,” “American Ultra” shows that there are still fun stories to tell.
The film was a valiant effort that was almost excellent.