The blog of Amon Warmann: Film journalist.

Film Review | American Ultra

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★★★½☆

Things start simply enough in Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra as we meet Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), an unmotivated stoner who works at his local cash and carry and lives with the girl of his dreams Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Their lives are turned upside down when it comes to light that Mike is actually a highly trained sleeper agent created by the CIA, who have just targeted him for termination. To survive against deadly government assassins led by power mad agent Yates (Topher Grace), Mike must put his newly discovered set of skills to good use.

Written by Max Landis – who also wrote the excellent Chronicle – the screenplay is one of American Ultra’s strongest aspects. The film is billed as an action-comedy, and it brought to mind elements of both the Bourne franchise and the Chuck TV series, but there’s also a heavy (and effective) romantic component that runs throughout. American Ultra is at its best when it combines two or more genres together, a feat which is only sporadically accomplished.

Next to the tender love story, the action is surprisingly the most successful aspect of American Ultra, with energetic camerawork and smart editing combining for some fun set-pieces. It is very violent though, and while that is not a problem in and of itself, it doesn’t always work well with the film’s comedy. This is especially true in the tonally chaotic final act, which ups the kill count in creatively brutal ways even as Grace’s agent becomes overly cartoonish.

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The rest of the impressive cast fare far better. As Mike’s sympathetic former handler Connie Britton adds a touch of class to proceedings, and Tony Hale scores regular chuckles as CIA agent Petey Douglas. As you might expect though American Ultra is definitely Eisenberg and Stewart’s show (the actors had previously worked together in 2009’s Adventureland), and when they’re on screen together their chemistry shows. Eisenberg is really great at playing twitchy characters and that really works well here, and he proves equally adept at playing a convincing badass. Post-Twilight, Stewart has made some really great choices, and her affecting turn here is another in a growing list of excellent performances. It makes it doubly disappointing that a clever character twist mid-film isn’t played out to its full potential.

While the mix of genres may make American Ultra a difficult film to market, it works wonders for the film itself. Combined with winning performances – particularly from its central duo – there’s plenty of fun to be had here.

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