Starring Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra offers a meld of some of the most popular film genres today, action, romance and dark comedy. It should not, however, be dubbed a dark rom-com – if there is such a thing – if only for the fact that a bulk of the film watching public may take against it before giving it a look. The film it reminded me most of was Horns. Both films combine a number of different genres and feature a major cast member with a film franchise in recent history (Harry Potter and Twilight). With many of the opinion that it lacks the deftness that is required for such an undertaking, it received a pretty lukewarm reception. However, I have to say I liked it. I’ll grant that it is not without rough edges and there are missteps here and there. Even so, speaking for my self, movies that take of and experience turbulence are usually preferable to those that play safe and never get off the ground.
The film’s premise can be summed-up in what is known as a million dollar pitch, although the budget for the movie was in fact $28 million – 1 million is a pittance in the modern film industry. Prior to getting his memory erased, mild-mannered store clerk and stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) was a government hitman. Solid premise.
After what is popularly known as a bureaucratic reshuffle, the powers that be, embodied by Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), decide in the interest of ‘security’ that Howell is a ‘loose end’ that needs to be ‘tied up’. Howell’s former boss Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) disagrees; a human weapon though he may be Howell is still a US citizen, entitled to protection under the law. In a bid to protect her former operative, Lasseter ‘activates’ Howell. That is to say, she tracks him down in the work place, speaks a seemingly nonsensical sentence and with that his training kick in. From there stylised, deadpan violence ensures.
The different elements (comic/ romantic/ action) all temper one another. However, there is a general agreement that there is an unevenness in the execution. In particular, the violence is seen to overbalance the comedy. I’d have to agree that the film gets darker as it progresses, but I confess it didn’t bother me. That might say more about the critic than the movie (doesn’t it always?) still, as the tone darkens the action grows steadily more crazy, and thus the mitigates the tonal shift. Simply put, in the beginning, there is fighting followed by jokes. By the end, the fighting has become the joke, at least up to a point.
Lurking in the background, especially for persons my age, is Adventureland (2009). With Adventureland being a better movie, the comparison is not wholly flattering. That said, having co-starred (again as a couple) in a previous movie, the relationship of Eisenberg and Stewart is believable. In the early half of the movie the day-to-day portrayal of their relationship is amusing and endearing in equal measure. The trouble arises when it is revealed that Phoebe (Stewart) Mike’s girlfriend is his former ‘handler’. The move is understandable. In the interest of not diffusing criticism of heteronormativity, giving the female lead some badass credentials makes sense. Or it would if it didn’t seems so contrived.
However, there is another aspect to the character that needs to be addressed, specifically in relation to the Twilight series. There is, of course, talk of Stewart taking the role in as part of an attempt to shake off the impression left by that film series. That is possible. However, it cannot be said without the speaker running the risk of being condescending. Is it really so unreasonable that Stewart read the script and thought she’d try something outlandish? I’d say not. However, the Twilight series does raise some questions as to how the film industry itself is run. It is fair to say Robert Pattinson has had an easier time ‘distancing’ himself from the Twilight franchise than Stewart. The same can be said of Daniel Radcliffe with regards to Harry Potter. That fact that Stewart has had trouble in ‘distancing’ herself from her former role compared to her male peers might therefore be taken as an example of male privilege within the film industry.
Another character that also seem totally inorganic is Rose (John Leguizamo). Neither the character nor the actor playing him are bad. However, this loud character is conspicuous and out-of-place. Yet, for all its slips, American Ultra is a good attempt to bring together what much of what mainstream cinema treats as distinct material. With a great set-up, engaging performances and impressive visuals, it is certainly worth a look.
Dark, comic and romantic. Not perfect, but not bad either.