Re-teaming Adventureland’s dynamic duo of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, American Ultra sees the pair playing Mike and Phoebe, stoner lovers who are left dumbfounded when Mike suddenly develops ass-kicking spy skills to brutally dispatch of two car thieves. The pair are then sent on the run, all the while trying to get their heads around Mike’s newfound abilities.
Eisenberg and Stewart make for a charmingly unconventional couple. The one-two of their performances and Max Landis’ writing (him of Chronicle fame and scribe of the upcoming Victor Frankenstein) makes for a killer combo. Landis writes their relationship beautifully, giving us a privileged insight into their sparkling connection. The time we spend with Mike and Phoebe in the opening half hour cements our affection for them. So, when the guns start firing (and they do), we are left firmly rooting for the lovable stoners caught in the crossfire.
By the time the blood starts flying, it becomes apparent just how important that early character work is. Landis gives us just enough downtime in the first act to earn our attention and, more importantly, our care. Had the film’s foundations not sat so firmly with me, I feel that the latter stage carnage would have toppled the whole movie.
Nima Nourizadeh (Project X), directing here, pulls no punches with the (American) ultra violence, but the elaborate blood spurts force home the over-the-top nature of the action sequences. Whereas the similarly cartoonish unexpected-action-heroes vehicle, Red, skimped on the splatter, American Ultra embraces it wholeheartedly.
That does result in some pretty relentless genre-hopping, and we’re left with a movie that never quite settles on a defined demographic. The left-field romance plays to the Adventureland crowd, whereas the exaggerated action scenes seem to appeal to a wildly different moviegoer. But, how refreshing it is to see a movie that doesn’t feel like it was made by committee. There are a handful of distinct voices at play here; Landis with his high concepts and his character work, Nourizadeh with his hallucinatory visuals and his vibrant colour palette, and Eisenberg and Stewart with their nuanced and naturalistic chemistry. And that cocktail makes for a pretty thrilling 90-minutes.
I would argue that the (many) independent production companies at play here would have covered their backs somewhat by dropping the $28m budget. But, it takes balls to go all out with an ‘original’ concept that never sits comfortably in any generic box.
American Ultra has all the makings of a cult graphic novel whose splash pages have bled onto the big screen. It’s big, bold, unashamedly weird, visually inventive, disarmingly sweet and (with the lacklustre box office) a pretty exclusive club. Suffice to say, I had a blast!