Monday, November 7, 2016

American Ultra

American Ultra
Sometimes movies can surprise you. For instance, American Ultra looked like it was going to suck based on the trailers. Surprisingly, it was pretty damn good.
To explain this, I'll ask you a question. What do you get when you cross The Bourne Identity and Blood Punch with a tad of classic Bond thrown in for good measure? You get American Ultra.
Look at that poster. First, there's Jesse Eisenberg, who can be really good in some movies and really bad in others. Next, there's Kristen Stewart, who has acquired a rather undeserved reputation for not being able to act. Funnily enough, Eisenberg has that reputation in some circles too.
Let's break this down based on this movie, BvS, Now You See Me, and The End of the Tour, the later two of which had trailers included on this film's DVD. In BvS, Eisenberg played an egomaniac with a commanding personality. He had the air of a supervillain to him, the kind of thing you'd expect out of Lex Luthor. He carried himself like he owned the place, and spoke like he expected to be heard. Then there's Now You See Me, where he plays a cocky son of a bitch. A smirking, cocksure, swaggering douchebag who feels like he can do anything he wants, while also acting detached from his environment. Then there's The End of the Tour, where he basically seems like any guy you'd expect to meet on the street. He acts like a background element, someone who just sort of blends in, while interacting rather effectively with his co-star, Jason Segal. Then there's this movie, where he's got perfect command of his characters' insecurities and quirks. Not only that, he constantly shifts back and forth between the passive, nervous stoner and his Bond-esque combat persona. To say that Jesse Eisenberg can't act is blatantly untrue. He doesn't change up his voice much, but he completely overhauls his mannerisms and the way he speaks for almost every role.
Then there's Kristen Stewart. Thanks to the Twilight movies, and Snow White & The Huntsman, she's been painted as a pretty face without much talent. Namely, a blank expression with very little obvious interest in what she's doing. Having seen Tara Reid in action, not only is Kristen Stewart not a bad actress, by any means, but she actually manages to carry her end of the film. In fact, if not for her expressionism and her expressive acting, this movie would have easily fallen flat. Stewart plays the straight-man to Eisenberg's wise-guy, in what is essentially a duo-comedy film.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a stoner with anxiety issues living in Liman, West Virginia. He wants to propose to his girlfriend, Phoebe Larson in Hawaii, but at the airport Mike has a panic-attack and they miss their flight.
Mike and Phoebe go back to their lives of doing small things in a small town. Mike as a clerk at a local convenience-store and Phoebe at the bail-bonds office. Mike begins freaking out that he's holding Phoebe back, but decides to try and overcome his failings to make a spectacular statement. So he talks to his drug-dealer, Rose (John Leguizamo) to get ahold of some fireworks.
At the CIA headquarters in Langley, an agent named Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) is called on a secret phone and told that one of the experimental agents she oversaw, codenamed "Wise Man" is about to be terminated by "Tough Guy." Lasseter headed up Wise Man, while her colleague, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace, better as a villain here than he was in Spider-Man 3) headed up Tough Guy. Lasseter tries to get Yates to back down on killing the last Wise Man, (Who happens to be Mike) but he refuses. She decides to activate Mike so he can have a chance at not being killed, but he doesn't seem to be phased by his trigger-words as much as the guys from The Manchurian Candidate were. She decides to bug out before Lasseter's men show up to kill Mike, and leaves him to his fate. Naturally confused, Mike makes himself some soup for dinner, but notices a pair of guys messing with his car. He goes out to try and stop them, but they pull guns on him. Mike's training then re-activates itself, and he kills the two with a spoon and a gun he stole from them. After this, he freaks the hell out and calls up Phoebe to tell her what happened. Naturally, she's freaked out by all of this. Then a plastic-bag lands on Mike's car and the bombs the two guys he killed planted, explode. Fortunately, he took the fireworks out first. The two are then arrested because of these killings, and tossed in jail. Because two guys planting a bomb on your car and attacking you with guns doesn't justify killing them in West Virginia somehow. Before the cell-door is closed though, two more Tough Guy operatives, Crane and Laugher, lay siege to the Sheriff's Office. Mike's training then kicks in once more, and he manages to keep them from killing him. Laugher is left with broken teeth, and Crane is dead as a doornail.
Naturally, this brings up a few red-flags with Yates, who has already found out that two of his men have been killed. He works up a ridiculous cover-story and begins his siege. He blocks off the town so Lasseter can't escape, but she calls in an airdrop from one of her associates and gets herself a shotgun and pistol.
Mike and Phoebe get to Rose's house. Rose has tons of guns and an armored house, so they figure it's a good place to lay low. Rose and his henchmen have some pretty funny dialogue exchange with Mike, before Rose locks him and Phoebe in his rave-room after seeing Mike and Lasseter on TV as part of the coverup. Yates's men begin pumping poison gas into the house and kill Rose and his goons. They try to kill Mike and Phoebe, but thanks to Mike's skills and Phoebe's theft of one of their gas-masks, they manage to escape. Phoebe grabs a syringe from the body of one of the soldiers and injects the bleary Mike with it. She knows a bit too much about the gas and what it does, while Mike flashes back to various aspects of their relationship before coming back to reality. He realizes that she's probably a CIA agent, and she admits it. She was his handler back when he was with the CIA, but they fell in love. After he was brainwashed into amnesia, and dropped off in the town. She stayed behind rather than be reassigned, and we find out that all of his anxieties, all of his phobias and shortcomings were a product of the CIA suppressing his training. The whole reason Yates wanted to kill him was because he was slowly finding the ability to leave the town.
The two of them are then assaulted by Laugher, and Phoebe's car is set on fire, seemingly killing Mike. However, Lasseter manages to get him out before the flames get to him. Phoebe is taken back to Yates's base of operations, where he finds out that Lasseter and Mike are headed back to his house. Yates tries to call in an air-strike on Mike, but the guy he threatened into authorizing it, Lasseter's old assistant, Petey backs out, so Yates orders one of his men to take one of the Tough Guys out and take out the two of them. Meanwhile, Petey reports Yates' activities to their superior officer, Raymond Krueger, who sets into motion actions to shut Yates' operation down.
Mike takes out the guys who try to kill him and Lasseter, and takes their vehicle and his fireworks to Yates' base at the local superstore. Phoebe manages to get out of her handcuffs while Yates sends the last of his men after Mike. Mike kills most of them, but his fight with Laugher comes to a standstill when both of them are too heavily injured to continue, and when Laugher manages to gain enough lucidity to explain to Mike what the hell Yates did to him. Yates and his crew took mentally-ill people and screwed with their brains so they would obey orders they were given. The extent of Mike's brainwashing just blocked off his memories and gave him massive issues with anxiety. Mike gets to choose what he does, while Laugher is basically The Winter Soldier, but without the mental stability to be able to cope with what he has to do.
Mike lets Laugher get away, and Phoebe helps him get out of the building. They're then set upon by Krueger's men. Mike proposes and Phoebe accepts. The two are then tasered, Yates is executed, Lasseter convinces Krueger to make Mike into an agent, Mike accepts the gig, and he and Phoebe take up work traveling the world, killing people in unusual ways.
To put it bluntly, you could easily have told me this was a Hollywood remake of Blood Punch and I would have believed you. Despite lacking the supernatural elements, the plot of American Ultra is almost beat for beat the same as that of Blood Punch. Main-character doesn't know things about his situation, does drugs, has a hot girl who also does those drugs, the girl knows more about the leads situation than he does, there's a villain who wants to kill the lead and mess with the girl. Dark humor, kick-ass action, and a drug-dealer who turns on the leads after initially being friendly. Hell, both films start out with flashbacks, both are open-ended and both could either have a sequel or not and be perfectly fine. I could have pictured Milo Cawthorne as Mike, Olivia Tenent as Phoebe and Ari Boyland as Yates in a pinch.
There are plenty of differences, however. For one thing, American Ultra lacks the downer-ending of Blood Punch and some of the (no pun intended) punch of the action. Not to say that it isn't visceral, but Blood Punch had a lot more focus placed on the kick of the action, while American Ultra is filmed like a more-loose, less shakey Bourne movie. Not that that doesn't work, the cinematography and editing is basically perfect in framing the characters actions. On top of that, American Ultra lacks the incredibly poorly-choreographed wide-shot of the final battle-scene that could have been cut entirely that was my one major complaint about my favorite film of 2015. American Ultra also has far-better audio-effects editing and mixing than Blood Punch does. On the other hand, Eisenberg and Stewart are clearly breathing out CGI smoke in the beginning of the film, while Blood Punch relied far more heavily on practical effects for small things like that. Something they both share is the ability to sell the action no matter how ludicrous it might seem, and the use of either practical effects or very good CGI for most of the important scenes. You're not going to see any effects-failures on the level of The Expendables in this film. Hell, you don't see anything as cringeworthy as the parade from The Hunger Games despite the fact that this movie had about a third of that films budget. Just goes to show that it comes down to how you make a film and not how much money you've got.
All in all, while this film was a bit shaky in some aspects (Namely it's not paced quite as well as Blood Punch was) it's a damn good action-comedy with punchy writing, editing and acting alike. Just a shame it didn't make its budget back at the box-office. I would urge anyone who liked Blood Punch, or likes black-comedy action-films to buy this movie on Blu-ray or DVD and watch it. It isn't quite on the level of the suicidal brilliance of Blood Punch's morbid humor, but it's well worth watching to the end. Hell, it might even be worth a sequel. For that matter, the comic Mike wrote in-universe sounds pretty good as well. I'd like to maybe see a comic-book or some animated shorts about Apollo Ape.
In the end, I give American Ultra a 9.0*. It's a fun film to watch, and if you want to laugh at some punchy jokes, this is a good film to do that with. Plus, the ending-sequence is well worth watching.

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