Movie Reviews: "American Ultra" A Solid Stoner Comedy
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A hero for the viral age...
I'm not a fan of stoner comedies, but the trailer sold me. It spoiled, as trailers do, all the A grade quirkiness from Eisenberg and Stewart, but it got my heart pumping, mostly because I am a fan of the song. In October of 2014, it was impossible to escape When Mama Isn't Home, the video of a father playing the trumpet and a son “playing” the oven door. It spawned countless remixes and fan art out the wazoo. It also caused a leap in awareness for the song they were covering: "Freaks" by Timmy Trumpet.
"Freaks" was all over the American Ultra trailer (below). While the song itself doesn't show up in the movie, the plot felt a bit like an echo of its viral story.
American Ultra is a story about a loser who, it turns out, was a washed up experiment from a government group hoping to create the perfect asset, basically an unstoppable killing machine. Instead, they got Mike-- a guy so afraid of his own surroundings that even his latest attempt at a proposal worthy vacation with his girlfriend Phoebe is foiled by his hodophobia. He's a mess, and clearly the least likely person in the world to be useful in a gunfight. At least until circumstances lead Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) to show up and activate his latent training.
Most of these movies watch like male power fantasies, with a hero who gets the girl, has the best rides, the sharpest suits, the biggest guns, and drinks the finest booze-- but James Bond this is not. Mike is an every man (at least the twenty first century version of one), and he stays that way. He doesn't suddenly ditch the life he knows, doesn't "go clean", quit his job, doesn't gain a cool car or a snazzy wardrobe. The dressiest he gets is a brand new kitschy Hawaiian shirt, and as the kid slams the oven door for the final time and looks up and out of frame in a majestic and heroic pose, you still have an anxiety ridden pot-head with an arrest record, a job at a convenience store, and arms and legs more like toothpicks than lethal weapons, holding a gun.
Despite Jesse Eisenberg being pretty much the furthest thing you can imagine from a Tom Cruise or Daniel Craig action hero type, the action is super satisfying. Between the explosions, trick shots, and ridiculous body count, you have threats that feel straight out of a comic book; drones with bombs, men in hazmat suits locking down a crazy virus, drug dealers in frankly offensively ugly tracksuits, an entire squadron of genetically modified madmen on their trails... it's just totally insane. What's more is that each time you think it's can't get more ridiculous, it feels like the movie doubles down on its own bluff.
There's also a pretty great plot-and-emotional-reactions to violent deaths ratio, for those who want some reason behind their killings. There are a few really awesome chicks in the story that help balance all the testosterone, between Lasseter on the good guys' side calling all the shots to fight off the power hungry evil Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) and the suddenly badass butt-kicker Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), they're never reduced just to care giver or damsel in distress, or just a plain old trophy hook-up, which feels like something I have been waiting way too long for. I thought it was really cool to see a movie where two women and an average joe took on a team they were outmatched against, and to have none of them look like a European car commercial in the process. They get dirty and bloody. It's messy, and you have to wonder which of them will make it out. They aren't bullet proof or fireproof, and it's fantastic.
No matter whether you watch it and feel like it deserves fireworks or just a few choice notes on the trumpet, American Ultra definitely brings the freaks out to the floor, and being part of the audience felt to me like watching the a good vine and just waiting to for it to blow up.
Check out our other review this week: Sinister 2: And So and So and So and So