Movie Review: American Ultra

In a review for American Ultra, a reviewer posited that August was the month where studios dumped their lesser movies; in the attempt to wring out just a bit more money out of summer moviegoers. Sadly, it’s not August that’s the true dumping ground, that distinction would go to February.

If it is a dumping ground, at least August has way better movies in it than the turgid, miscast, shelved-for-years nonsense that mucks up a February movie release calendar. This is why I hold out great hope for Deadpool, seeing at its only real competition will probably be another Katherine Heigl starring romantic-comedy abortion that a studio sneaks out.

As I stated in my The Man from U.N.C.L.E. review, August is home to the cable movie incubator. Sadly, this means that American Ultra joins its ranks as well.

From what little he has done between American Ultra and Chronicle, screenwriter Max Landis seems to be the king of great concepts that somehow lose something in the translation to the big screen. Perhaps in it’s the low risk/high reward budgets of his movies. Seeing as no studio in their right mind would give American Ultra the kind of budget that would do the material true justice. So instead, we get a modest $12 million dollar budgeted film that wisely uses that money for star power and less for action movie bang-pow.

American Ultra also lends itself to the notion of “it’s not for you”, a concept that a movie might not be for everyone. Sometimes old ass Peter Travers isn’t going to be the intended audience of a movie like this, even with his lackadaisical review style that inexplicably finds itself blurbed on every turd movie that’s released in a calendar year.

The movie is clearly aimed at a younger audience who doesn’t really have the necessary touchstones to better action movies.

Another problem that American Ultra is contending with is the idea that since its protagonists are potheads this is supposed to be a stoner movie. The movie clearly labeled itself as an action movie first, with comedy coming in a distant second. If this were to be a comedy, why would the two leads be Jessie Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart? Hell, the only real comedic elements in the film come from John Leguizamo and he’s barely in the film!

From left: The
From left: The “comedic” stylings of John Leguizamo, Jessie Eisenberg.

The limited budget means that the “action” in this action film is bare minimum. Many shaky-cam-laden and obscured camera fights scenes try to disguise that Eisenberg, or any of the other actors, didn’t spend six months learning how to fight or train in any kind of movie-kung fu. There are explosions, but they’re small and wimpy and if you’ve seen an action movie at any time in recent history, you’ve seen what’s on offer here.

The concept of Eisenberg’s super-spy Mike Howell being able to kill anyone with anything is awesome. Unfortunately, it’s never really used to great effect, outside of the first scene in which he uses a spoon and a cup of ramen. You’d think the climax taking place in a hardware store would yield great results, but it does not. It mainly reveals the budget constraints of the film and the need to keep things small. No unique kills with a brass wing nut or anything, just typical screwdrivers and hammers type maiming. And guns lots and lots of gunplay.

I still remain firmly unimpressed with Kristen Stewart and while she and Eisenberg have great chemistry, and help ground the film in the real human stakes the story tries to imply, she’s just…Kristen Stewart. She’s boring and constantly has her mouth open just this much to be annoying. You’d think she’d use all that Twilight money and get some acting classes.

“Acting” as seen in every movie Kristen Stewart has EVER been in.

American Ultra‘s true problem is pacing. If it is indeed an action movie then it can’t have so many pudgy parts padding out the time. Again, budget constraints are probably more to blame than anything else is, but in between the action set pieces is a lot of downtime. Some of it is used to great effect, especially considering the kind of actors they got for the film. It’s fun to watch Bill Pullman, Connie Britton and even Topher Grace kind of flex some semi-over-the-top acting.

But when it’s to the determent of the action, that’s where it begins to lose its edge and starts to become that cable movie masterpiece, languishing on TNT and AMC the rest of its days.

There’s an animation sequence at the end that reveals the true heart of the film. Its black light tinged color palette and over-the-top violence are only merely hinted at in American Ultra. Had this end scene informed more of the movie tonally and stylistically, perhaps it would’ve been better than cable movie average.

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Movie Review: American Ultra

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