8 September 2015

American Ultra review

It can be hard to write a review. Sometimes I find it difficult to look at something critically because of how much I enjoyed it, and at other times it can be hard to find something good to say about something I strongly disliked. But this time, a complete lack of any feelings one way or the other makes reviewing American Ultra hard, a film so unremarkable in every way that I'm certain I'll have forgot I even saw it in a few months.

American Ultra is the story of Mike Howell and Phoebe Larson, a couple of unambitious stoners who live together in the town of Liman, West Virginia. Unbeknown to Mike, he's really a secret CIA asset from an Ultra program, a highly trained killing machine who can be activated with a coded phrase. When the person responsible for the Ultra program that created Mike learns that he is to be taken out by a rival CIA agents operation, she travels to Liman in order to activate Mike and save his life.

Despite this seemingly interesting premise, there is very little of American Ultra that feels at all original or noteworthy. The most obvious problem facing American Ultra is that is has been marketed as something it isn't - those expecting a mash up of the Bourne films and a stoner comedy are going to be sorely disappointed when they realise that much of the films run time is dedicated to exploring the (admittedly rather sweet) relationship that Mike and Phoebe share, the infrequent comedic moments being rooted in character and having nothing to do with our heroes penchant for substance abuse, a part of our main characters that really isn't needed.

The stoner aspect of American Ultra has no bearing on either the plot of the film or the characters themselves beyond surface level (and I'm talking mainly costume design here), and if anything distracts from the film during potentially important moments. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart bring enough to their characters for this 'humanising' aspect of them to feel unnecessary, and the cynic in me sees it as an if not manipulative then certainly questionable attempt to sell the film to a wider demographic - one that has wholly failed, judging by the under-whelming box office numbers that American Ultra has seen so far.

On the plus side, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are, as I already mentioned, really quite good as Mike and Phoebe respectively. Jesse Eisenberg's Mike is the right level of vulnerable to garner sympathy and understanding without alienating the audience, and despite some questionable career choices Kristen Stewart more than proves that she can actually act when asked to do so in a performance that paints her as the more capable of the couple without coming across as demeaning. Although it isn't a particularly original pairing (the two of them having shared the screen nearly 6 years ago in Adventureland) it can't be said that it isn't a great bit of casting - a good job too, given how American Ultra is far too content to try and get by on the charms of their lead actors alone.

Everything else about American Ultra is nothing more than mediocre. Topher Grace is competent but unremarkable as the films bureaucratic big bad. The side-plot dealing with the inner-workings of the CIA is an acceptable distraction to the central narrative. The action scenes are evenly placed throughout the films running time and don't go on for too long. This constant level of 'fine' becomes almost over-whelming by the time American Ultra draws to a close, and results in a movie that I was already forgetting by the time I'd left the cinema. It's a film without highs or lows, a film that should be vivid and full of energy but is instead completely monotone, a film that exists and nothing more.

American Ultra is a perfect example of when the sum of the pieces is less than the value of the pieces themselves - this is a film that is consistently OK, but somehow less than OK when taken as a whole. It failed to resonate with me, it was unable to engage me as an audience member, it was incapable of making me care about what was happening - no matter which way you phrase it, something about American Ultra simply didn't work. I can't say I would or wouldn't recommend American Ultra because ultimately, I feel nothing but pure apathy towards it. And in some ways, that's more harmful than being bad.

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