Thursday, 24 September 2015

American Ultra review

American Ultra has been fairly panned over the last few weeks, yet I felt the concept (stoner comedy spy thriller) sounded pretty cool. So I checked it out. Is Landis's tweet about the death of original cinema unfounded. Read my review after the jump....

There would appear to be a problem with Nima Nourizadeh, the director of American Ultra. Both of his big films (Project X is the other one) have been critically smashed. But, intriguingly, for the same reason: they're not funny. Now, I believe Nima needs to listen up a bit. Stop calling your films comedies! They aren't funny. And you know what, I think if he did that both of his films would have a much higher rating on the internet. The thing is, Project X was a technically accomplished experience; you felt part of the whole affair, and then the disintegration of the party was riveting. All in all, the film was a thrilling adrenaline rush. It was not funny. Thus, it's comedy labeling attracted harsh criticism. I believe that American Ultra is a fast, frenetic, violent and silly B-movie-esque romp. I loved it. It is also not funny. So why, in Gods name, was it marketed as such? I have no clue whatsoever.

The story in one sense is typical, in another unusual. We follow Jesse Eisenberg's Mike Howell, a massive stoner. He works in a gas station and suffers panic attacks every time he tries to leave smalltown Liman, West Virginia. It's the panic attacks that are the problem: we discover that Mike is actually an undercover CIA agent who has been shut down. However, his repetitive attempts to leave the states have drawn unwelcome attention from Adrian Yates, a particularly dis-likable agent. It's time to take him out. But there's one problem - Victoria Lasseter (a slightly more likable agent) is not exactly amused by this. She activates Mike's instincts with a string of code-words and leaves. Before long, an army of agents is descending upon the town for an almighty battle that forms the film.

Did you notice anything in that above description? The movie is described as a hybrid thriller, with the boundary crossing between a Bourne thriller, and a stoner comedy. Well, as you can see from the story, stoner-comedy is oddly missing. There's  a series of references to weed, characters smoke it, and it forms the basis for part of the story - but you can't argue that this film isn't a thriller at heart. Which is absolutely fine. It feels like a really fun B-movie from the 70s (but with a higher budget), and surely that's a good thing. With other 'summer movies' like Ant-Man and Sinister 2, it's nice to see something a little different.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are immensely likable, as you would expect from their previous experience in Adventureland. What they bring to the film is a real humanity and honesty that feels genuine, and propels the story forward. Their involvement is paired with a semi-amusing-yet-still-annoying John Leguizamo small role, and a painfully scripted yet alright show from Topher Grace. Connie Britton handles the genre role she's been given perfectly, and adds to that 'kick-ass female protagonists' list that's been referred to a lot over the past year. Walton Goggins's performance is particularly worth noting as an unhinged psychopathic killer, adding some comedy (believe it or not) to the mix.

But as the action moves on, the light-hearted thrills and spills of the first half begin to merge into murky, disturbing, ultraviolence. And I don't mean ultraviolence lightly. I mean like The Raid, or Kick-Ass. I think the only thing that saved it from the 18 rating in the UK was the stipulation that it was all done in comedic context. Don't get me wrong, I quite liked this pace/tone change as it allowed for some seriously cool shots.....

Nice poster aesthetics!
In fact, most of the shots and production design in the film IS just shit-hot. Like really damn cool. From the neon-lit gas-station where Mike Works, to the misty lakes and rivers of the town, the the smoked out aisles of a supermarket, and the neon glowing basement of his drug dealer's Gym, it's consistently fantastic. Add to this a thumping score and some eye-catching slowmo, and there you have it. One cool ass B movie.

So that's the score, American Ultra is an awesome, fun, violent piece of Eye Candy that unfortunately does not quite live up to its concept. It still gets 4 stars though!

American Ultra gets 4 stars!

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