Tuesday, 8 September 2015

American Ultra

The best word that can be used to describe the gleeful mess of American Ultra is "entertaining". Well, even that depends entirely on how you define "entertaining". If, in order to find a movie entertaining, you need it to make use of good character development and a solid, coherent story, then American Ultra may not really work for you. If you simply want to sit down and watch 95 minutes of gleeful, over the top violence that flies at a dizzyingly rapid pace, then you'll find lots to like here. I normally favour the former, but American Ultra just offers this rare, genuine sense of fun, to the point where it becomes obvious that plot and character are not the film's priority. It doesn't deliver on its true potential due to what it does lack in story and character, but when you have a film this giddily enjoyable it's almost hard to complain. American Ultra is one of those films that had all the potential to be a cult classic, but despite its strengths (of which there are many), winds up falling just short.

After Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a paranoid stoner from Virginia, is greeted by a strange customer (Connie Britton) at his work, he finds men planting a bomb on his car outside. When they attack him, however, he is able to kill them using just a spoon and a hot cup of soup noodles, despite not knowing what he was doing. After calling his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart), he learns he is an agent of a Tough Guy programme who had his previous life wiped from his memory, and has now been activated as the killer he really is. It's a wacky idea, and its inspirations are largely in bold and foregrounded throughout, but the film's biggest issue is its failure to transition from premise to plot. We find out the basis of Mike's true existence relatively early in the film, and by doing so the rest of the narrative struggles to keep things interesting. There's a genuinely surprising twist in the middle that works well in the moment, but it isn't explored enough and is solved relatively quickly, leaving no time for it to have an actual impact on the film.

The boundaries between premise and plot can be blurry. The latest Mission Impossible film, for example, fails to leave premise zone for its entire first act, but ultimately made the transition and wound up an engaging action thriller. Ant-Man, however, managed to move what is an irresistibly exciting premise into a plot quite quickly, its only downfall was that the plot just wasn't interesting. American Ultra has its premise laid out from the get-go, it just doesn't turn it into a story. You should be able to say what a film is about in just one sentence; summarising an entire plot, though, should require more. It would be frustratingly easy to prevent a friend from seeing this film by talking them through the general story in a matter of seconds, and this forces the film to feel as if it isn't going anywhere. We're moving from location to location, people are dying and the stakes are raising, but none of it really binds into the plot. Whilst it could be argued that this is realism (real life, after all, doesn't have a plot), American Ultra is not a film that targets realism. It tries hard, but it just can't find a story within its madcap premise.

What the film does have, though, is an irresistible sense of fun that keeps things enjoyable even if we've been in premise mode for over an hour. Most of this stems from its lead actors; both Eisenberg and Stewart are game with their respective characters, and each deliver knockout performances. Eisenberg could never be sold as a serious killer, so he seems the perfect choice to play an anxiety-stricken stoner who never really understands what he's doing while he does it. The comedy might not be the film's biggest strength, but he gets a few good chuckles in simply by looking like he has no clue what he's doing. Stewart is also enjoyable, as wildly fun as Eisenberg is but also acting as the film's emotional core. Mike and Phoebe, in a matter of minutes, feel like a genuine couple whom I felt myself caring about very early on, and I put this down mostly to Eisenberg and Stewart's body language around each other and some smart touches early on in the script. Mike and Phoebe are nice when they're sentimental, a brief scene discussing a car and a tree was both upsetting and thoughtful simultaneously, and the film even manages to create a genuinely emotional moment in Mike's ultimate proposal to Phoebe. But they are at their best when fighting side by side, even if neither seem to have any clue what's going on.

As well as the pair's all-in performances, American Ultra benefits from sharp direction, giving it a distinct visual flare that, while nothing particularly new, is uncommon enough to still feel exciting. The wild, over-the-top violence is ripped straight from Kick-Ass, but it isn't used quite as much here, so it feels more like inspiration than thievery. Director Nima Nourizadeh uses birds eye cinematography and unusual colour scheming to set scenes apart; a brief but exciting fight in a neon-lit room in Mike's friend's house should have lasted way longer than it did. The film spends a lot of its final act inside a supermarket, and the initial fight is shot and edited to appear as one continuous take. The camera rapidly bounces from person to person, and aisle to aisle, and it's a thrilling sequence that proves how much fun action can be when staged and pieced together appropriately. It may be a tad too violent for some, there's a lot of blood and punching and knives going through hands, but it's all done with a tongue in cheek approach. Don't get me wrong, American Ultra finds ways of being dark and when it wants to be serious it succeeds, but once fists start flying, the tone lightens immediately. This type of sharp direction keeps the film on its toes, despite its nonexistent plot.

American Ultra has the basis of something special. When you strip everything back, and simply look at the unusual visual style and basic premise, this film isn't too dissimilar from Kick-Ass. Yet one of them has settled nicely into cult classic status, and the other won't. The difference between the two is that Kick-Ass takes its exciting premise and binds it to a gripping story with genuine character development, rather than just a few ideas with a pair of likeable leads. American Ultra is a film filled with potentially great ideas, but not many of them come through and reach their full potential. With some minor character tweaking and major narrative adjustments, this could've been something quite special, but as it is, it's just sort of okay. It's fun and enjoyable, and you'd have a hard time feeling bored at any moment, but by the time the credits roll it's difficult to feel a sense of accomplishment for anyone in the film. Eisenberg and Stewart give it their all, and they are an absolute blast to watch, bolstered further by Nourizadeh's vibrant direction, but they're let down by a script that fails to leave the starting line by the time every other contender has finished the race.

To Summarise: It struggles to find a coherent story within its eccentric premise, but American Ultra is a gleefully entertaining, ultraviolent action film bolstered by sharp direction and great performances from its leads.

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