Saturday, August 29, 2015
American Ultra Review
Super high super spy. What could go wrong?
(As of this posting, I am currently moving to England and setting myself up. Ergo, this review a placeholder until I can get settled in. Regular, fully detailed reviews, will resume September 5th. We now return to our original programming)
You know, I'm mostly impressed that I'm actually reviewing an original movie for once. Just think about the Hollywood landscape right now and how its biggest franchises are either adaptations from other media, or mega franchises that span decades of production. So, why is that? Why are so many movies in Hollywood based off of franchises with hardly any original movies anymore. Well, franchises bring in money. They bring in a certainty that people will go and see them, even if the final product isn't that good. There's brand recognition, and for the movies that don't have any of that, they have no intention of becoming franchises. Nearly any serious Oscar contender is not a part of a franchise or series, but instead stands on its own. American Ultra wants to become a franchise and become something wholly original and new. I can't say for certain it succeeded, but it sure did try.
Mike Howell is a stoner with a pretty boring life. He works in a small town convenience store, has a pretty decent girlfriend that he loves, and is content with being a stoner with a passion for drawing cartoons. However, Mike was subconsciously implanted to be a secret agent for the government against his own knowledge, and when the higher ups think that he finally poses too big of a risk for them, they send killer after killer to come for him. Thanks to his secret agent training though, he's able to hold them back, but for how long, and what other secrets are in his small little town as well?
American Ultra is a movie that perfectly encapsulates a movie that struggles with expectation over destination. What do I mean by that? Well based on that premise, you would expect a semi comedic action movie about spies, some stoner humor, and the occasional dose of ultra-violence. At least, that's how I viewed it when I first heard about it. I heard about this movie that could have been so action packed and lived up to the expectations myself and a lot of people had for this movie. The movie had these moments... but it felt restrained beyond all comparison.
There are so many scenes throughout the movie that you would expect to be over the top and full of sheer insanity, but none of that potential is ever reached. When the phrase "stoner spy" is thrown around, you expect a spy that's good at his job, yet also filled with the prerequisite stoner humor. Instead, the movie is pretty bleak in its outlook on life and the action, outside of a hilarious first action scene and a scene involving a frying pan, is pretty mundane. Sure Mike gets the ever loving crap knocked out of him several times, but the injuries and bodily harm feel like they were ripped straight out of the torture scene in Casino Royale. It's more uncomfortable than anything else.
It's just frustrating when every scene should be great popcorn thrilling action, yet it instead focuses on a dour tone with little actually happening. I get what the movie is trying to do. It wants us to be in Mike's shoes. It wants us to be this normal, every day stoner and see this insane action through his eyes. Yet his reactions are always dulled with very little emotion or resonance to it. He becomes overwhelmed with the action and tries to distance himself from it. Again, it's understandable why our protagonist wants to do that, but it's not exactly interesting or dynamic for a film. It's just kinda there.
I want to take a quick minute though just to go and compliment Kristen Stewart on a magnificent performance in this movie. Can we all finally get over the stigma that she's a terrible actress just because she was in Twilight? There was no saving that pile of dreck, so now that she's finally out of there and can do her own roles, she's actually a very fine actress. She has spunk, attitude, some funny one liners, and can actually kick some serious ass. When your last public exposure of mention was being a vacant and downright obsessed stalker fangirl, this is clearly a step up.
And Topher Grace was a major asshole in this movie. I don't really have anything else to say about him in this movie, so let's just move on.
The sad thing is though, I wish I had more to say about American Ultra. It's advertising was so in your face and ready for some ultra-violence. Instead, we got a semi good character piece with some mildly interesting kills. When the kills happen, they're great! The jokes are there, and the action is solid. But the movie is too scared, or limited, to do what it wants. Let me break down this movie for you in some simple percentages.
40% of this movie is focused on the plot. You'll get a lot of backstory and character moments, mostly between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. 20% of this movie is action in some way, shape, or form. 20% is drama between all of the characters and their interactions with one another. 10% is built up on the romance, while another 10% is about some comedic moments. It seems like a weird balance of power if you ask me. For an "action movie", there's hardly any action here. I just wished that the advertising for this movie was honest. It's not as bad as the Terminator: Genisys advertising, but it's still pretty bad in hindsight.
American Ultra was still good, but it wasn't anything that I hoped it would be. I was let down by my own expectations, but it still met a few expectations. Just not a whole lot of them.