by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Nima Nourizadeh
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) has a more pallid complexion than usual. He only goes outside at night, when the rays of the sun aren’t present to make his skin burn or discolor. He has tricked a woman named Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) into embodying this drastic way of life as well. There is a great question here waiting to be answered about why such people live as they do. Stewart had a nicer tan when she was a vampire.
American Ultra, the second film written by John Landis’ son Max, is a not very funny romp through West Virginia, since the town itself is devoid of any Americans other than Rose (John Leguizamo). We quite literally never see another person, which is funny because John Landis was quite interested in how Americans spoke and acted, and the zany half-comic romps he specialized in thrived on jokes about how the individual took his place in a greater whole.
American Ultra is devoid of any specific comic relief. Eisenberg is depressed and upset he can never live his West Virginia birthplace. This is because he is secretly a government project designed as a drone of sorts. Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) sends out the other members of his program to hunt him down for no discernible reason, since he is just working at a Cash N Carry and having very infrequent sex with his CIA handler/girlfriend.
Stewart proved herself a talented performer capable of a superstar-like role in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria last year, but she is not really suited for open aggression — just subtle tear downs and sideways looks. American Ultra basically pretends she doesn’t exist, focusing mostly on the self-defense Eisenberg offers against those trying to murder him.
Eisenberg has established his credentials in a variety of quick-talking roles. He is still doing the same basic schtick, but he has a novel way of putting a twist on what is essentially a variety of similarly narcissistic characters. There is a hint of something more vulnerable in the character of Mike Howell, but the clueless direction of American Ultra never touches it.
It is supposed to be comic that a stoner is killing all these people without really meaning to, but director Nima Nourizadeh does not really give a humorous flair to the action. The only depth given to any of the characters is a man from Howell’s program named Laugher (Walton Goggins) who offers Howell empathy after failing to murder him. He is the only one to receive it: otherwise, Howell is a savage killer, dismembering and cutting up his victims in fast and explosive ways. Watching it is vaguely like witnessing Hannibal Lecter eat.
Beneath the clueless and rote direction, there is another script here. Hollywood has a rich history of writer-director collaborations that barely even spoke to one another. Famously Lee Tamahori never understood that David Mamet’s 1997 script for The Edge was a satire. There was nothing special about anything in the script of Casablanca, but it accidentally became a kind of phenomenon. A more recent example of such discord might be the recent Fantastic Four, which looks like someone spliced five different scripts together and called it a day.
American Ultra contains nothing that bad. It is just so devoid of any kind of character development that we forget there used to be movies like this, narratives which contained no content, and which in some level are designed to be appreciated by children or pets. Fortunately or unfortunately, we expect more now.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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