- Movie Rating -

American Ultra (2015)

| August 24, 2015 | 0 Comments

Buried somewhere deep within the mangled mess of the spy thriller American Ultra is a compelling love story struggling to get out. Unfortunately, the main story, about a sleeper agent with a target on his head, is unfocused and half-written and just gets in the way. That’s too bad because when the movie just observes its two leads, it’s quite a lovely story. We’ll get to the spy stuff in just a minute.

For a while, I kind of got caught up in the love story. We meet Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a perpetual loser whose life is a long, slow ride going nowhere. The only light in his life is his long-time girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) who seems to have no real reason to be with this stoner, but she sticks by his side with a stubborn devotion that is either admirable or foolhardy depending on your point of view.

Mike is broken, not a bad person, just a little broken.  He is prone to panic attacks that have ruined more than one attempt to take Phoebe on a vacation to Hawaii. They spend their nights talking and getting high and there is a light in her eyes when she looks at him. He knows he’s a mess. He knows he’s a burden to her and is always apologizing when his panic attacks ruin their plans. Outside of his dysfunctions, Mike spends his nights working at a grubby convenience store that looks as if it is clinging to the edge of the world. Inside it is dim and quiet with an atmosphere fit for a Stephen King novel.  It seems a perfect symbolic match to his circumstances.

What I have described, unfortunately, is the first 15 minutes of the movie. After that, the spy plot comes barreling in the door and what has been gained character-wise goes right out the window. The main plot has been spoiled in the trailer, but if you’re intending to see this movie cold, stop reading now.

One night at work, a woman (Connie Britton from “American Horror Story”) walks into the store and starts speaking gibberish to Mike. He says he doesn’t understand and she turns and leaves. Later, in the parking lot, two men advance on him and he dispatches them with a spoon and cup of hot soup. It turns out that Mike is a sleeper agent from a defunct government program run by the CIA and the project leader (Topher Grace) wants him dead. The woman speaking gibberish is a CIA agent who is trying to save his skin.

What follows is a spy movie in the vein of Jason Bourne, but this movie is a lot less polished. The ads make this look like fun, slacker version of the TV show “Chuck” but it’s actually a dead serious action thriller with buckets of blood and a higher body count then most horror movies (seriously, a guy gets an axe to the head). I could call it by-the-numbers, but there seem to be numbers missing. This is a very badly written movie. There are characters and motivations and plot threads that are brought up but then never referred to again.

Some plot developments are left hanging.  There is a character played by Bill Pullman whose function in the movie, I guess, is to be a superior at the CIA. He drops in at the beginning of the movie and then comes back at the end, but darned if I could explain his role or why he’s even here. There’s also seems to be some connection between Topher Grace and the Kristen Stewart character that seems to hint at a personal or perhaps romantic history but it is never explained and goes nowhere. They talk as if they’ve been close in the past but the movie never tells us what their connection is. It’s frustrating.

American Ultra is a maddening experience. There seem to be scenes and explanations that are left out, almost as if we’re seeing a clumsily edited version of the finished product. At a brisk 95 minutes, I wouldn’t doubt if there’s a longer cut somewhere. Not that I need any more of the spy stuff, but a little more of that wonderful love story might be nice.

Truthfully, the worst part of American Ultra is that as soon as I finish writing this review the movie will slip quickly from my mind. By the end of the week, I won’t remember half of it. A month from now I won’t remember the title. Other than the nice chemistry between the two leads, there’s nothing really here to stick in your memory. It’s a good looking but badly written piece of business that bludgeons a sweet indie romance with a blowhard Hollywood plot. If you have to see a movie this weekend, go and see Straight Outta of Compton and save this one for DVD. Maybe then you’ll get a longer cut and maybe it’ll make more sense.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2015) View IMDB Filed in: Action