Review: American Ultra
In the film American Ultra, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) are just your average, small-town American slacker stoners. United by their passion for drugs, convenience store meals, and each other, they live in a contented enough bubble. In a lustful and pot fuelled haze one starry evening, Mike gazes at a car wrapped around a tree close by and wonders aloud to Phoebe whether he is the metaphorical tree in her life, halting her from autonomous greatness. By this conjecture in the film it is very clear that both Mike, in their fictional union, and his portrayer, eternally smug actor Jesse Eisenberg, are the weakest link. With her scintillating screen presence and stilled poise, Kristen Stewart lights up every scene she’s in (no drug pun intended). Her portrayal of the astute yet sensuously mysterious Phoebe carries the film and keeps it watchable, even when everything surrounding her is an unhinged wreck.
That wreck involves a convoluted, covert government operation in which the central lovers are entangled in. On an otherwise regular shift at his corner store job, biding his time sketching an animated astronaut gorilla (don’t ask), Mike is visited by the compassionate government agent Victoria (Connie Britton, who will perhaps always be known as the beloved Tami Taylor from the cult favorite television show Friday Night Lights). Instead of forewarning him of his Uncle Sam-mandated death sentence, she mouths an otherwise incomprehensible phrase that then sets into motion his long gestating, yet previously unconsciously tucked aside, assassin skill set. When rival agent Adrian (Topher Grace, fiercely chewing scenery) gets wind of her actions he unleashes a team of crazed assassins to execute Mike and mayhem ensues.
Screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle and the highly anticipated upcoming Victor Frankenstein) wildly shifts the tone of the film from comical (in the compulsively watchable yet surprisingly violent action sequences) to subdued (especially in the scenes involving Britton), leaving the audience unsettled and unsure of what type of film they’ve bought a ticket for. It certainly is not a Bourne/Pineapple Express hybrid or stoner Bonnie and Clyde that it is being marketed as (although it does have the most romantic pre-arrest scene since Blair married Chuck on TV’s Gossip Girl). With a capable director such as Edgar Wright the film could have easily and energetically toed the line tonally and used its graphic novel-like sensibilities to tremendous effect, but director Nima Nourizadeh, who made his directorial debut with the critically reviled Project X, is no Wright, and most of the film sputters along tediously.
American Ultra would be ultra forgettable if it weren’t for Kristen Stewart’s vital (and much needed) spark.