Film review: Franchise hopeful American Ultra fails to launch

The wild plot threads of American Ultra starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart don’t knit into a compelling storyline. Photo: Universal Pictures The wild plot threads of American Ultra starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart don’t knit into a compelling storyline. Photo: Universal Pictures

As if there were any doubt, the age of the comic book movie is here to stay, having embedded its logic and narrative rhythms so deeply in our psyche that even a wholly original, self-contained story like American Ultra cannot help but play like an attempt to introduce yet another franchise. Essentially an origin story for a superhero that falls somewhere between Neo in The Matrix and James Franco’s Saul Silver in Pineapple Express, Max Landis’ sometimes-clever screenplay and committed performances can carry the movie when the plot and action sequences come to a standstill but he never attempts to dig very deep to find originality in its tricky premise.

American Ultra tells the story of Mike Howell, a small-town stoner and self-described fuckup. Mike leads an uneventful life, doing very little beyond his job at a convenience store, doodling his comic creation Apollo Ape and doing his best to make his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) happy despite his many fuckups. Cut to CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where we learn that Mike is actually a sleeper agent who is about to be terminated by power-hungry upstart Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), prompting Mike’s handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) to activate him in order to save his life and the program that produced him.

What follows is a balancing act between two stories: the first, a potentially entertaining tale of a burnout who is constantly surprised by skills he never knew he had, and the second an unnecessarily complex tale of a power struggle within the CIA. The former has potential, and Eisenberg’s sometimes frightened, sometimes amused reactions to his super soldier training can be fun to watch, but moments of forced sincerity and predictable plot twists get in the way before true enjoyment can take root. The latter—while ostensibly the primary plot device—only drags things to a halt.

American Ultra occasionally shines in the interactions between its principals. Eisenberg and Stewart breathe life into the roles of Mike and Phoebe, as individuals and as partners in a semi-functional relationship (even after the blood starts flying). Lasseter and Yates, meanwhile, have terrific anti-chemistry, and not a single body movement or facial tic between the two conveys anything other than utter contempt that is a joy to watch.

Yet what could have been a daringly original take on superhero tropes unfortunately wastes a fresh script and the freedom of an R rating, only to go places we’ve been before. The film ends suddenly (not a spoiler) with a wholly unearned animated sequence depicting Apollo Ape committing a series of violent acts that have nothing to do with what came before. It is drawn in a raw, pulpy style, suggestive of the underground comix movement of the 1960s and ’70s. Perhaps at one stage, American Ultra was conceived as a Zap Comix-esque riff on the Marvel formula. Indeed, had this story been written as a pulp comic and not a screenplay, the satire would carry through. Yet despite its good intentions, great performances and inspired concept, American Ultra never transcends origin story cliches enough to become more than a prequel to a nonexistent franchise.

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