Sunday 6 September 2015

American Ultra by Max Landis

(Warning: this post contains spoilers which will impair your pleasure in the surprises sprung by the film.)

I was eager to see American Ultra on the basis of the trailer, and especially, the poster. This cheeky image of the movie's two engaging young stars sitting in approximations of the lotus position, four-armed like Hindu deities, appealed to me a lot... Although I was amused to learn that this British poster was bowdlerised — instead of holding a bong and a joint as in the American version, Kristen Stewart was to be seen in the London Underground brandishing handcuffs and a stick of dynamite.

American Ultra is written by Max Landis, son of director John Landis (American Werewolf in London). Max previously wrote the script of the excellent sort-of-superhero movie Chronicle, with Josh Trank. American Ultra is directed by Nima Nourizadeh who previously did the splendid Project X. The laudable photography is Michael Bonvillain.

This movie is a kind of slacker version of Shane Black's The Long Kiss Goodnight. It also calls to mind Quentin Tarrantino's True Romance and Goldman, Vaughn and Millar's Kingsman. 

It tells the story of pot smoking loser Mike and his implausibly gorgeous girlfriend Phoebe. Mike has a weird phobia that prevents him leaving the little town where he lives. This is because he is a brainwashed CIA super-agent and Phoebe is his handler. Unfortunately for them both, the Agency has decided to close their program down and wipe the slate clean.

Sad to report, American Ultra doesn't quite come off. It has brilliant moments, magnificent visuals and some priceless dialogue — when Mike's friend and drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo) suggests they drop acid and go into a "titty bar", Mike politely declines because it's 8:15 in the morning. But the movie fails to live up to its considerable promise.

This is perhaps because it all plays out on the same level. Once the mayhem is in motion, there is no real dramatic development, revelation or surprise. True, Phoebe is revealed to be a "fake girlfriend", but that was signposted earlier. And then there's the bad guys, who are perfunctory CIA suits with no discernible motivation.

But the big demerit for me is the way the hero will ignore seven perfectly lethal firearms and instead insist on killing his foes with household objects, like a metal dustpan. This was also a ludicrous failing in The Equaliser (a movie I really didn't like, though it was a huge hit). Possibly American Ultra is paying cheeky homage to The Equaliser. There is even a similar fight scene in a sprawling Walmart style store. Whatever the motivation, it's ridiculous and it spoils the movie — if your hero behaves stupidly and his motivation is distorted to suit the needs of your script, audience identification and sympathy go out the window.

This was particularly annoying since in American Ultra (unlike The Equaliser) it would have been easy to justify such suicidally silly behaviour — when Mike was brainwashed to forget who he was, he could also have been programmed so he couldn't use a firearm, as a safety measure.


(Image credits: the posters are all from Imp Awards except the UK quad, which is from Aimee on Twitter – thank you, Aimee!)

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