American Ultra

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday August 21, 2015

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star in 'American Ultra'
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star in 'American Ultra'  (Source:Lionsgate)

The digitization of bloodletting in cinema is a cause for legitimate concern. Every time Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) kills somebody in "American Ultra" -- which he does often, with frying pans, spoons, kettle balls, and all other sorts of household accessories -- it's accompanied by an ostensibly satisfying splash of computer-generated plasma. That's to say, each death is coded to elicit audience applause. Which is also to say that the violence in "Ultra" is cool -- it's fashionable, it's fun -- it's anything but ugly. The best movies leave us with a scar. But this one's rendered with such a glossy surface that it can barely scratch.

The movie is written by Max Landis ("Chronicle"), directed by Nima Norizadeh ("Project X"), and works diligently to fit "The Bourne Identity" onto the spoof-movie conveyor belt that produced "Pineapple Express." Howell is a pot-smoking flannel-wearing hippie. He lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), with whom he's working out his relationship anxieties.

And he's blissfully unaware that he had a prior life as a trained assassin. "He's government property," says Adrian Yates -- the personification of government overreach, he's played by Topher Grace -- but when the CIA tries to wipe him out, he's saved by an old handler (Connie Britten) who then "re-activates" Howell's superhuman killing skills. The setup has the narrative complexity of a multiplayer video game: It just gets a bunch of well-armed ciphers into rooms together, so that they may shoot each other for our entertainment.

Casually cynical references are made to drone warfare and to over-surveillance (both are used to track Howell over the course of the movie's one long night) so that we know that movie's aligned on the correct side of politics (the left). Those scenes basically announce themselves as being about "right now." Everything else, though, screams "back then": It's another post-Woo, post-Tarantino mashup designed solely for the sake of filming gunfights. There's some Looney Tunes in the ludicrous geography of the violence (bullets bounce off of surfaces like pinballs off of bumpers), some superhero comics in the outlandish characterizations (Walton Goggins, utterly wasted, appears as a perpetually-smiling assassin), some grunge by way of the costume and production design, and some "Cheech and Chong" in the humor. You could, in theory, call this a reinvention. But you could also call it recycling.

There's sincerity in the eyes of Eisenberg and Stewart. They like each other. That's real. Yet, the rest of the movie is as disaffected as the stoned teenagers who will end up watching it. There's a very '90s irony wafting off of each shot. It's certainly on the snap-zooms that Norizadeh affords to fresh weaponry throughout the movie. That's a trick borrowed from the book of Edgar Wright, whose movies (like "Hot Fuzz") straddle the line between spoof and sincerity. The difference between the films is that Wright truly cares for his characters, even the ones getting shot up.

Which brings us to Rose, the drug-dealing "Ultra" character played by John Leguizamo. He wears shades, a gold chain, a purple jacket, and attaches the n-word to each sentence, as though it were a comma. It's probably meant as a parody of ghetto cliches, but nobody's laughing. The cliches land, but the parody soars over heads. When Rose is shot and killed, the moment is filmed with a flatness that's almost cruel to the character. It's not tragic; it's glib. It's just more gory violence of the unanalyzed and unreal variety. And, sad to say, the audience reaction seemed to confirm that it was very "cool." What could be worse than that?