Monday, 5 October 2015

Movie Review: American Ultra (2015)



Of all the different films that have resulted from Hollywood today at its most adaptation-happy, one of the rarest seen nowadays is the spoof. There are probably two fairly big reasons for that: The proclivity of YouTube parodies have pretty much made the notion of paying to watch a spoof movie on the big screen unnecessary, and the simple fact that none of the filmmakers that could actually pull off doing spoof movies are around anymore. When the only champions for spoof films are the sanity-stripping duo of Friedberg and Seltzer, the guys behind Date Movie, Disaster Movie and Meet The Spartans, it’s enough to make anyone swear off snarking on films ever again. But, then again, maybe these parodies aren’t as dead as we think; they can also sneak up on people if you’re not careful. For example, we have today’s film: This is American Ultra… and points already for the most awesomely ludicrous name for a film this year.

The plot: Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a slacker who spends his days getting stoned, working at a rundown convenience store and being with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). However, once a mysterious woman (Connie Britton) comes to his store and tells him a coded phrase that awakens something hidden within him, it turns out that Mike might not be so ordinary after all. In fact, he is the last remnant of Ultra, a government experiment meant to create advanced soldiers through mental programming. CIA agent Yates (Topher Grace) wants to erase the Ultra program entirely, and with Mike’s entire town under ‘quarantine’, it’s up to him to try and stay alive as he comes to terms with his former life.

The cast here works really well in places and not so well in others. Eisenberg has shown before that he can play neurotics with laser-guided precision and he gets to flex a bit of that muscle here as well. Once Mike is ‘activated’, his admittedly well portrayed stoner persona start to show signs of Mark Zuckerberg poking out of the cracks and that mash-up creates surprisingly good results. Beyond that, one of the big requirements of playing the super-powered slacker is to look unassuming at first but still being able to sell the action scenes, and Eisenberg does that quite nicely with a good balance of those clashing personalities. Opposite Eisenberg is Kristen Stewart… and really, there is no good way for that sentence to finish. It’s getting to the point where I genuinely feel sorry for Stewart because the stigma of portraying Bella in Twilight is probably never going to leave her. Every role she’s given is automatically going to be considered better regardless, and every relationship said roles partake in are going to be considered better regardless. That said, though, credit where it’s due: Her and Jesse make a very sweet couple on-screen and Kristen herself shows to be more than capable of handling scenes on her own; honestly, she’s kind of bad-ass at some points. Connie Britton, considering she has been saddled with a largely expository role, does admirably with the material she’s given, Bill Pullman as Director Krueger only gets one scene to himself and he puts all the intimidation he can into those few moments, and John Leguizamo, or Legz-in-his-mouth given how most of his work turns out, gets a mercifully short scene. The big weak point here comes from Topher Grace as our main antagonist, working as a great showcase of how self-awareness isn’t the smart bullet some writers think it is. His character is intentionally made to be headstrong, arrogant and cowardly in all respects, but Grace’s acting in the role is beyond awkward even when it isn’t called for. Then again, anyone who has seen him as faux-Venom in Spider-Man 3 will know full well that playing the bad guy is not this actor’s strong suit.

The plot here feels built on the kind of high-concept idea that is remarkably easy to track the logical progression of: Guy gets stoned, watches The Bourne Identity and/or Total Recall, has moment where he wonders if the same thing has happened to him, writes “What if?” script involving just that. I’d denounce this film right off the bat as weed-fuelled nonsense, but then again that didn’t stop me from loving the hell out of Tusk last year. It also helps that this kind of story involving a slacker who has a greater calling in life fits right in with the modern trend concerning Hollywood obnoxiously promoting social inclusion and how “everyone is special”. To paraphrase the only filmmaker who’s been able to pull off the idea recently with any kind of success: Saying “everyone is special” is just another way of saying that no-one is. However, even with that said, this film carries off the idea with sufficient drama (even if said drama is been-there-done-that at this point) and while the plot and its stakes are relatively small, that is probably out of the fact that there aren’t that many places for the story to go that won’t result in either re-treading old territory or stepping too far out of the realms of plausibility. As for the comedy, while there aren’t that many flat-out jokes said in the script (other than the walking punchline that is Topher Grace), there is a bit of humour to be had in the straight-faced attitude this film takes with the premise itself, like with how Mike needed a few repeats of the coded phrase for it to even work because he’s so blitzed. Not that the script is perfect though, since it starts off a pretty misguided note with a flash-forward that contains a rapid-fire montage of events to come, along with a framing device of him recounting the events of the film. These kinds of openings almost always end up opening plot holes because the POV character is recalling events that they weren’t present for, and it doesn’t help that showing what will happen in the film (however swiftly) weakens some of their effect when they appear in the film proper. There’s also a matter of key characters either disappearing from the film entirely or not being identified when they should be, but then again this is coming from the guy who wrote Chronicle; I’ll gladly take this over what the other creator of that film has gone on to make.

Despite the relatively small budget, which probably went towards the actors considering the small scale of the story as well as the numerous little-known production companies attached to it, this is a surprisingly nice looking film. Aside from the found-footage party film Project X, director Nima Nourizadeh’s film experience comes mainly from his work on music videos by artists like Lily Allen and this film feels like Nima is inching closer to bringing his stylings to the big screen more successfully than last. This carries a few of his trademarks, like portraying characters pining for the fantasy that may not be realistic as portrayed with Mike’s subplot involving him working on a potential graphic novel called Atomic Ape that makes for a nicely executed end-credits sequence. It also carries some of the montage-heavy editing that we got in Project X, only the shots used carry a bit more weight to them than merely fetishizing X-imbibing party scenes like in that film. Hell, as much as I think the introduction was a shaky way to start the film, it still works as a tonal setter considering how frequently these pop up. Another montage focusing on Mike and Phoebe’s relationship works really damn well and contains some genuinely beautiful cinematography courtesy of D.O.P. Michael Bonvillain, easily one of the most aesthetically awesome names I’ve ever seen attached to a movie. This frenetic tone also comes in handy during the fight scenes, which are hyperactive but still coherent enough to make out the almost gleefully visceral bouts on screen. I do love me some literal homemade carnage and this film delivers with Mike pulling off some creative and occasionally wince-inducing kills, as best highlighted in the climactic fight in a supermarket where he gets inventive with the whitegoods.

All in all, while this may not be as gut-bustingly funny as a self-proclaimed ‘stoner comedy’ should be, it’s still a refreshingly low(er)-key action movie that works well within its relatively small framework. The cast may be spotty in places but really shines where it counts, the writing works nicely as a riff on the sleeper agent concept that gave birth to the Bourne films and even makes for some compelling drama in its own right, the action scenes are well-placed and very effective for those with a stomach for the red stuff and the overall production, considering both the companies attached to it and the director’s previous film, looks remarkably good. With the traces of spoof humour that are littered throughout the script, it’s kind of nice seeing film semi-parody on the big screen that doesn’t make me want to decapitate myself with a ceiling fan. It ranks higher than Chappie, as this film is more consistently entertaining even if it may not carry the same gravitas as that film’s finale. However, considering we’re still talking about an action-comedy here, it loses points in comparison to Trainwreck, a film that manages to deliver on all of its selling points whereas this falls in that one category. Even if it’s just out of a want to promote well-made cinema these days and to prove that both Stewart and Nourizadeh are both capable of doing good, I definitely recommend checking this out.

No comments:

Post a Comment