Are marketing teams for movies getting worse or better at their jobs? I find myself frequently surprised at a number of films I see each year due to their marketing not accurately reflecting the product they’re selling. American Ultra is yet another case of this. While I had been led to believe the movie would be a Pineapple Express parody of The Bourne Identity, what it ended up being was actually a pretty faithful riff on The Bourne Identity with the more sweet and stupid sensibilities of a slacker romance.
That’s not to say the movie isn’t funny, but it’s certainly not focused on being funny. There’s an earnestness to the story of Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) escaping from a CIA hit squad led by the egomaniacal Agent Yates (Topher Grace) that never devolves into goofiness or self-satire. There’s plenty of humor in the movie (mostly performance based, and a lot of it doesn’t land), but it all feels very natural to the situation. This isn’t a spoof or a farce.
As far as being a genuine action movie goes, American Ultra is kind of great. There’s lots of blood squibs (oh, how I miss them) and enjoyable violence throughout the film, and the fight scenes with the enemy agents are all wonderfully choreographed, culminating in a supermarket showdown that will probably pop up on a “Top Underappreciated Fight Scenes” list in a few years. Director Nima Nourizadeh knows how to deliver well-constructed action, and I hope he gets picked up for something with a bigger scale after this.
The most shocking element of the whole film is how much the relationship between Mike and Phoebe works. Though it does rely on a more teenage viewpoint of love, I couldn’t help but find myself invested in them. Eisenberg and Stewart make their low-key personas work wonders for them in this, and it gives them a believable chemistry that more flamboyant romances never even get close to touching. Much more than being a comedy, American Ultra succeeds at being a really good love story.
Max Landis’ talent for emotional weight especially shines through with the character of Laugher, played by the always stupendous Walton Goggins. I can’t really divulge much else without getting into some minor spoilers, so just skip this paragraph if you want to remain oblivious. Goggins’ character is played as the foil to Mike, dementedly laughing all the time and being revealed as a former mental patient and arsonist. He’s comes off as an atypical lunatic heavy, but his final scene adds an entire dimension to the character that I didn’t even entertain thinking about. It’s yet another one of the surprises American Ultra hit me with.
Even with all this praise, I can’t say that American Ultra doesn’t feel exceptionally minor, both in its execution and its construction. The movie flies through its story at a measured pace, but it still leaves very little time to really delve into its characters (unless that directly involves the ongoing mystery of the film). Almost all of that front-loads the movie character-wise, which is great for enjoying the action stuff, but it feels like the movie could have given its characters a little bit of space somewhere in the middle.
Still, I was thoroughly surprised with American Ultra. I expected a much more silly experience, and though not receiving that might actually be a negative to most moviegoers, I found it thoroughly refreshing. It’s not a phenomenal film, but it’s a highly satisfactory one.