“… firmly mediocre, only taking a handful of opportunities to introduce a few exceptions to it’s otherwise boring narrative.”
I’m not a fan of the phrase “… with a few exceptions” because it is so vague that anything can be made true just by adding it to the end of a sentence. Unfortunately for me, the theme of today’s review is “… with a few exceptions” because I just watched American Ultra; a movie wherein every aspect is mediocre, with a few exceptions. American Ultra stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell, a stoner who lives in a small town who is revealed to be a sleeper agent trained by the CIA. The movie then follows Howell and his girlfriend Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart, as their lives are constantly threatened by CIA agents who are trying to terminate Howell.
I want to start off by saying that I did enjoy the idea of the movie: a stoner who realizes that he has untapped potential as a deadly assassin sounds like a killer plot (even though similar things have been done before), but it was the execution of this idea that ruined it for me. Even though the movie has the seemingly solid foundation of a great idea, the story manages to fall flat and become boring and repetitive. We are introduced to Mike and Phoebe, two characters who I don’t give a shit about, and have to watch them go through these adventures fully suspending our disbelief to stomach them. But just because a movie’s story isn’t great doesn’t mean that it can’t be saved with the dialogue; unfortunately for American Ultra the dialogue is about as cookie cutter as you can get. Many scenes composed of one character saying “I did a thing”, to which the next character replies “why did you do that thing”, and it is wrapped up by the first character saying “I don’t know”. This is passed off as comedy, but at this point it is so played out I couldn’t laugh once. Tying back into the beginning of this review, there are a few exceptions. Throughout American Ultra there were a few (and I mean the low end of “a few”) times where I genuinely laughed; this was due to either a genuinely funny line that was said, or a line that had no right to be funny but the actor’s delivery made it hilarious. This brings me into my next point about American Ultra: the acting.
American Ultra is one of those movies where you are constantly scratching your head while watching it wondering how all of these famous actors agreed to be in it. There wasn’t a 10 minute stretch where I wasn’t going “Holy shit, it’s (famous actor)”, but those actors didn’t really bring the movie to life. I honestly think that this falls more on the writing/directing of American Ultra, but apart from Eisenberg and Stewart nobody was really acting. You have an amazing cast of actors that all seem under-utilized, just reading lines off of a page. Eisenberg and Stewart, though I wasn’t a fan of either of their performances, were actually trying to to save the script by giving it life where there obviously wasn’t any. It was also really funny to see Jesse Eisenberg essentially act like Kristen Stewart throughout the beginning of the film; it made me feel like I was just watching Kristen Stewart act into a mirror which provided much needed (yet completely unintentional) comedy. Of course, say it with me now, there were some exceptions to this. Like I said earlier there were a few times when an actor absolutely knocked a line read out of the park, usually adding to the comedy in the film. However, there was one standout who did something I thought was impossible in American Ultra: that was Walton Goggins making me care about a bad guy. That’s right, the man we are meant to be rooting against got me to actually feel bad for him, even though I didn’t care about any other character in the film.
These next few points have no exceptions, so I’m going to power through them. First of all, the effects in American Ultra were dog shit. At first I thought the movie was exaggerating certain things to make the film more like a comic book, but they just continued to be bad. The first instance of bad CG happens in the first 10 minutes, when Mike and Phoebe are smoking weed and we see terrible clouds of “smoke” coming out as they exhale. This continues as we see many people get shot in this movie and we are subjected to terrible blood spray. The next problem I had with the movie is a small one, but one that makes me think whoever was in charge of this film is incompetent. Towards the beginning of the movie, someone at the CIA receives a phone call where the person on the other end is using what is seemingly a dollar store voice changer to alter their voice. This is annoying in itself, but the more annoying part is that the voice is so garbled that I couldn’t understand a fucking word of it. Honestly, how the fuck does someone watch that and go “yeah, that’s good”. Was it the end of the day and they just wanted to get home? Finally the last thing I want to mention is the ending of the film. I’m not sure how to describe the end of American Ultra other than to say that it is bad. The movie takes a left turn and heads in a direction that makes absolutely no sense for the characters. That being said, we have one last exception to discuss. When the credits start to roll we get to see a crudely animated gorilla go on a few adventures; this proved to be the most enjoyable part of American Ultra.
Ultimately American Ultra is a movie that shouldn’t be watched unless you have watched everything else on the planet. It is firmly mediocre, only taking a handful of opportunities to introduce a few exceptions to it’s otherwise boring narrative.
I give American Ultra a C