Friday, August 21, 2015

American Ultra: In their dreams

American Ultra (2015) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity, drug use and strong bloody violence

By Derrick Bang

I knew we were in trouble, before this movie even started.

Allow me to explain:

After an unfortunate encounter with some homicidal maniacs, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and
Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) are apprehended by the local law. Sadly, small-town cops won't
be much good in the melees that are about to follow...
Frequent filmgoers will have noticed, since time immemorial, that the studio logo always is the first thing on the screen. Some of the former titans have vanished over the years, but the familiar logos for 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures — to cite just a few — remain ubiquitous.

During the past few decades, however, we’ve been subjected to pre-movie “logo creep,” first due to an ever-expanding roster of so-called mini-studios — Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate, Focus Features and A24 leap to mind, among many others — and, not to be outdone, director/actor production companies (Tom Hanks’ Playtone, James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott’s Scott Free, Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures and Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison, to cite just a few).

Each one has its own logo, all of which get displayed — in some contractually determined hierarchy — before a movie begins. And then, just to stroke egos even further, the same companies are cited at the top of the opening credits. (Warner Bros. and Roadside Attractions present ... a BBC Films production ... of a Happy Madison film ... or whatever.)

All of which has led sage filmgoers to two observations:

1) The quality of a film often is inversely related to the number of pre-credits logos; and

2) The quality of said logos absolutely determines the merit of the film in question.

In other words, crappy logos = crappy film.

American Ultra is preceded by four logos, two for companies I’d never before encountered, both of said logos apparently created by 4-year-olds. At which point I turned to Constant Companion and muttered, sotto voce, “Houston, we have a problem.”

Actually, this film’s entire attribution chain is much, much worse, and worth repeating, in sum:

“Lionsgate presents / Palmstar Media Capital and Kevin Frankers present / in association with FilmNation Entertainment, a Likely Story / PalmStar Entertainment / Circle of Confusion production in association with Merced Media Partners / Tadmore Entertainment / The Bridge Finance Company AG, a Nima Nourizadeh film.”

Circle of confusion, indeed.

Nourizadeh deserves mention, at least, as the film’s director. Sad, then, that his name comes at the very end of that ludicrous ego overload.

Then again, perhaps appropriate: Nourizadeh didn’t bring much to the party.

As trashy, midnight-movie entertainment, American Ultra isn’t entirely a waste of time. Max Landis’ script has fits and starts of mordant humor, delivered with reasonable efficiency by stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton and Topher Grace. The premise is reasonably engaging, although Landis stole it, without so much as a by-your-leave, from Chris Fedak and Josh Schwartz, creators of the wildly popular (and still missed) TV series Chuck.

Indeed, this film could be regarded as Chuck on über-violent steroids.

Consider the similarities:

• Geeky male protagonist suddenly granted ferocious intelligence and ninja-level fighting skills: Check.

• Clandestine CIA overseer in charge of the black-ops program that created said deep-cover hero: Check.

• Covert handler keeping tabs on our reluctant super-spy: Check.

• Upper-echelon government types who decide to sabotage said program: Check, check and check.

Honestly, Fedak and Schwartz should sue for plagiarism.


Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a perpetually stoned slacker who leads a woeful, loser existence in the sleepy West Virginia community of Liman. Poor Mike, forever jittery, can’t do anything right; the one good thing in his life is devoted girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart). But when Mike tries to arrange the perfect proposal moment, it goes awry; on top of everything else, he’s pathologically unable to travel, and hence a romantic flight to Hawaii never gets off the ground.

And, so, Mike consoles himself by retreating into yet another drug haze, and drawing another comic book installment starring his own creation, Apollo Ape.

Elsewhere, at CIA headquarters in Langley, veteran agent Victoria Lasseter (Britton) is engaged in a pissing match with upstart junior exec Adrian Yates (Grace), who’s eager to Make His Mark. Believing he can impress their higher-ups by closing down a long-dormant sleeper agent program code-named MK Ultra, Yates authorizes the termination of the one remaining field asset.

That would be Mike, wholly unaware of his inner re-programming.

But Mike was Lasseter’s favorite asset, and she’s not about to let him get snuffed, at least not without granting him a fighting chance. And so she pays him a visit, intones a few code phrases, and ... nothing.

A genuinely funny moment, as Mike stares back at her, Eisenberg milking the scene for maximum slow-burn, blank-faced amusement. And so, reluctantly, Lasseter departs.

After which, Mike’s magic mojo suddenly kicks into gear when a couple of Yates’ minor-level minions attempt to do their worst. They don’t last long, thanks to Mike’s novel use of at-hand implements such as a spoon and a Cup Noodles-type snack. (Playing on that droll display of unlikely weaponry, all patrons at Tuesday evening’s preview screening were handed a ration of Cup Noodles upon exiting the theater.)

Having now learned that Mike can’t be taken down by regular means, Yates activates additional MK Ultra sleepers, most notably Crane (stunt woman-turned-actor Monique Ganderton) and Laugher (Walton Goggins, well remembered as Boyd Crowder on TV’s Justified).

Cue an escalating series of violent encounters, edited with modestly engaging efficiency by Andrew Marcus and Bill Pankow, and choreographed to Marcelo Zarvos’ shrieking, propulsive score.

So, okay, as guilty pleasures come and go, this one has its moments. Eisenberg’s hapless Mike is a hoot, particularly as he is increasingly overwhelmed by his unexpected talents for bone-crushing mayhem. At times, Eisenberg evokes pleasant memories of the reluctantly resourceful hero he played in Zombieland, and we can’t help laughing when poor Mike finally throws up his hands, rejects Lasseter’s earnest assistance, and decides to get totally stoned and surrender to whatever comes next (sorta like the final, equally pragmatic scene in 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods).

Grace also makes the most of his insufferably arrogant control freak, most notably when Yates repeatedly throws up his hands and wonders aloud, while scores of obedient underlings await his next command, just what it’ll take to bring Mike down. Tony Hale is equally amusing as a low-level CIA wonk who makes the mistake of helping Lasseter.

Goggins, as well, is a hoot ’n’ a holler as the cheerfully maniacal Laugher, who giggles as he dispatches his victims. This character becomes even funnier/creepier once his front teeth get knocked out, reducing his angry threats to a barely comprehensible lisp.

Totally tasteless, to be sure. But pretty funny just the same.

Nourizadeh displays energy, but not much else; his cast delivers acceptable performances on their own, and not due to much directorial engagement. His camera set-ups lack imagination, and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain can’t help much, except for a weird black-light sequence in a drug dealer’s basement.

This is only Nourizadeh’s second film, after 2012’s fitfully interesting Project X; based on available evidence, he’s not likely to rise above this sort of low-rent, should-be-straight-to-video fare.

This film’s tag line — “Everyone’s getting smoked” — pretty much says everything you need to know. The comic highlights notwithstanding, nobody will remember American Ultra two months from now.

Which probably is just as well.

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