"American Ultra" The Action Comedy That Forgot To Make You Laugh

By Scott Kurland
Film: American Ultra
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kirsten Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman
Rated R
Director: Nima Nourizadeh

Why is 2015 the year of the spy/espionage movie? Since January we’ve had “Kingsman: The Secret Service”, “SPY”, “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”, and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Not to mention the new Bond film “Spectre”is being released in November. We’ve also gotten a ton of comedies like “Trainwreck” and “Dope”. However, this week’s film “American Ultra” is being marketed as an Action spy comedy, but I must say I did not see the comedy or spy part of the film. There’s plenty of action and we also get a great cast, but....you know what? Let’s just get to the review shall we?

“American Ultra” is the story of a CIA sleeper agent/mini-mart employee named Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg). Mike is a stoner deadbeat, and his anxiety is slowly becoming a burden on his lovely girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Problems arise for Mike when a CIA agent (Topher Grace) decides to have a hit put on Mike. Mike’s old boss Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) activates him and unleashes a deadly killing machine on the CIA. The deeper  Mike gets into it with the CIA, the more he discovers. What he uncovers in the end is an even bigger secret that somehow involves Phoebe. Is Mike going to take this lying down or is he going to get blazed and take down the government?

Let me start out by saying I wanted to like this film. I really, really wanted to like this film. I’m a fan of Jesse Eisenberg, I’m a big fan of screenwriter Max Landis, and I’m a huge Topher Grace and Walton Goggins fanatic. However, this film let me down big time. For starters even though the plot is believable, the casting is not. 

I did not buy Jesse Eisenberg as a burnt out stoner for one minute. I could buy him as a secret weapon, I could even see him as the Topher Grace role. I could not see him as a stoner who is so brain dead that it boarders on cruelty to even let him live. At times Eisenberg’s Mike is so absent minded it is a miracle he can put his name tag on. I think Mike’s believability, or lack their of is all because Eisenberg is playing him. Eisenberg is always the smartest one in the room in a film. He was Mark Zuckerberg, David Atlas from “Now You See Me”, and he’s going to be an amazing Lex Luther. SO WHY DID THEY MAKE HIM PLAY THIS ROLE? Mike Howell would only be believable in the hands of either James or David Franco. Someone who is normally known for playing a stoner. Eisenberg is a great actor, but this role is beneath him. He needs to go back to being the smartest guy in the room.

Everything I said about Eisenberg  goes double for Walton Goggins and Topher Grace, another example of great actors miscast in roles. Goggins is so typecast as a lunatic now. It seems he’ll always be playing the crazy laughing maniac. Grace is doomed to be the villain or the pompous know it all. They do well with the roles they are given, but both actors could be doing better films. Grace has been on a bit of a dry streak with films like “The Big Wedding” and “Don Peyote”, I thought this was his comeback film. Sadly it wasn’t, it was another nail in the coffin.

Surprisingly the best performance in this film was Kristen Stewart as Phoebe. Normally, I’m not a fan of Stewart’s based solely on “The Twilight films” and “Snow White and the Huntsman”. Yet, in this film Stewart is the only saving grace. She’s sweet, likable, and you can see why Phoebe might make the choices she does for Mike. Stewart’s performance alone is the only reason I’d  even recommend this film. 

“American Ultra” has one huge problem for an Action comedy, it’s not funny. The joke fall flat, the only person laughing in the screening I saw was Walton Goggins ; and he was on screen. I will say this, the fight scenes were epic and very well done.  Still, if your film is suppose to be a comedy you need to make people laugh. I thought Max Landis’ concept and idea were unique and I really would have liked this movie if it was a straight laced action flick. The concept of the CIA destroying their sleeper agents is a great idea, and Landis did a fine job telling the story. With that said, it was up to director Nima Nourizadeh to make Landis’ script come to life. When you’re director you have one job to do, and that is make the film work. Make sure you have pieced together the best scenes. Reassure your writer that the script is perfect. Finally, get the best actors for the role, not the actors you want to work with.  Nourizadeh failed to do all of that, and for that this entire movie suffered.

“American Ultra” would have been a much better film if a more seasoned director like Edgar Wright or Adam McKay directed it. This isn’t a bad film, but it also isn’t a great film. The actors are miscast, the jokes don’t play, and the two big twist reveals are downplayed to such an extreme that no was surprised when they happened. “American Ultra” had such potential to be a great film, but poor directing held this film back. I know Max Landis will go on to write something spectacular, but “American Ultra” is not that film. Do yourself a favor and save your money. If you want to see Jesse Eisenberg in something really special go see “The End of the Tour” and miss “American Ultra”.

scott kurlandComment