2015 has not been a kind year for one particular Chronicle alumni, Josh Trank, who’s follow-up, Fantastic Four is making history in the worst way possible in terms of critical and box-office response. Now the writer of Chronicle, Max Landis, finally brings his follow-up with the stoner/action/comedy, American Ultra. It’s directed by Nima Nourizadeh, known only for directing Project X (oddly enough, another 2012 movie). It stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell and Kristen Stewart as Mike’s girlfriend, Phoebe Larson. Mike turns out to be a sleeper agent, who gets activated by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) as a way to protect himself from Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), a CIA agent running an operation to kill current sleeper agents so he can take control of the program to create assets of his own.
This was a film I was very curious about because I was such a fan of Max Landis’ work with Chronicle. To my surprise it exceeded most of my expectations. The most interesting part is that while I came in for the comedy and the action that was promoted, what ultimately kept me so thoroughly engaged with the film is the love story between Mike and Phoebe, which is the heart and soul of the film. So, while American Ultra isn’t quite the best comedy of the year, it is easily the best romance film of the year. It’s largely due to Landis’ sharp writing and the stellar performances and chemistry with Eisenberg and Stewart. They both shine in the film and are believable, well-rounded characters that are vulnerable and immensely likeable. I found myself very invested in their relationship, hoping everything will turn out OK and that Mike will be given the opportunity he needs to finally propose to Phoebe. It’s hard to overstate it given how little of the marketing reflected on this element of the film, but it really is the thing that really holds everything together and makes it feel emotionally resonant when the film could’ve simply been forgettable fluff.
As I mentioned, Landis’ writing is terrific. He is clearly a master at building believable and identifiable character relationships, even in the midst of a ridiculous story. There are also a lot of great little details that he will give characters that add genuine depth, so even when certain characters may not be fully explored, there’s enough there to work out what the characters are like and why they do what they do. It prevents otherwise over-the-top characters from being completely one-dimensional. His work also shows that he knows how to use genre conventions to his advantage in creating interesting and satirical subversions, or even just to have little poignant moments. One moment in particular happens towards the end with Mike and the psychotic “Laugher,” played by Walton Goggins, one of the people sent by Adrian to kill Mike. Not give anything away, but I found it to be a very thoughtful and interesting direction to take that moment.
Aside from the two leads, the supporting cast also delivers good work all around. Topher Grace is great as the villain. What I like is that on the surface, Topher Grace seems like a miscast, but the way he plays his character and the context for his character’s actions work perfectly with his appropriately stuck-up and arrogant take on the character. John Leguizamo is a welcome presence as Rose, Mike’s drug dealer and even Tony Hale gets a couple solid laughs from the brief time he’s on screen.
If there’s one area that I wished the film was better, it would be the direction. It’s not to say that Nourizadeh’s direction was bad, it wasn’t. His direction was simply competent and I think the film deserved better than just competent. He didn’t have the genre-savviness, the style and energy that the screenplay clearly called for, and I think it holds the film back from being an instant classic. This especially goes towards the action scenes, which aren’t bad, but there’s nothing that interesting or inventive with the cinematography or the editing. That’s not to say there aren’t some nice touches here and there, but the biggest choices from a directorial standpoint aren’t nearly as inspired as I felt like they should have been. It’s the kind of film that someone like Joe Cornish, Adam Wingard, Jalmari Helander, and even Marjane Satrapi would’ve worked wonders with. One other thing that could’ve been better was the ending, or really the last few minutes. There’s an ending that was great, but then the film goes on for a little while longer and it goes into a weirdly unnecessary open ending, as if they want to make a sequel. It doesn’t ruin the film, but the last couple minutes feel like they could be easily cut out and nothing significant would feel missing.
While there are things that do hold American Ultra back from being a truly astonishing piece of work, it’s still a great film because it manages to work where it counts. Behind all the weed smoke, the bloody violence and Mike’s awkward neuroticisms is a genuinely sweet and sincere love story between two likeable characters played perfectly by their respective actors. It’s the kind of relationship that would be treated like a walking punchline in any other comedy, but here it is the core of the film, it’s nothing without it. The film is so wonderfully bizarre and idiosyncratic in ways that the marketing simply doesn’t do justice and a lot of it comes right out of Max Landis’ screenplay and the strong, in-tune performances. It may not find an audience now, but it’s destined to be one of those underrated gems that will be looked back with more positivity. In the meantime, here’s to hoping Landis’ next writing gig, Victor Frankenstein (currently scheduled for a November release), pays off.