So once again we have survived.

American Ultra

tn_americanultraAMERICAN ULTRA is an action… I want to say comedy?… about what would happen if a totally unlikable stoner who works at a Cash ‘n Carry turned out to unknowingly be a brainwashed government super killer who has been missing and the CIA tries to take him out so he finds himself killing a bunch of dudes in self defense and doesn’t know why. THE BOURNE IDENTITY meets some dude you know’s unproductive early 20s.

But it’s not jokey like a Cheech and Chong picture or THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. Mike, the horrible loser protagonist, is played by Jesse Eisenberg (CURSED) with his usual cold distance, minus the intelligence. He’s not the funny or huggable type of stoner either, he’s just the kind that you’re supposed to like because he has a dream of creating a generic “underground comic” about a monkey (it could be this generation’s MONKEYBONE in my opinion) and mumbles quasi-deep philosophical bullshit comparing his life to that of a tree. In narration he humblebrags about being “a fucked up couple” with his long-suffering, oh-that-poor-woman, someone-really-needs-to-have-an-intervention-with-her-about-that-terrible-boyfriend-that-is-sucking-away-her-life-essence-every-second-of-the-day girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, JUMPER). But, sorry bud, these two aren’t even Sid and Nancy, they’re just a guy who disappoints his girlfriend by saying they’re going to Hawaii and then instead having a panic attack and bringing her home to make her an omelette and then burning it.

I mean, there is some neon colors and some hyperactive shootouts and a car blowing up in a parking lot, but also an equal amount of two very tired-seeming people who haven’t washed their hair in a while cuddling, and the guy is real neurotic and won’t shut up and the girl is real sad but says she loves him despite his constant failure. If you like that kind of thing.

mp_americanultraPhoebe is not a stoner, she’s just “the perfect girl” whose primary activity is comforting Mike and being weirdly forgiving of everything he ruins constantly all day every day. The mystery of why she puts up with him briefly seems solved when it’s revealed that SPOILER she was his CIA handler keeping an eye on him. But then it turns out she really fell in love with him and abandoned her life as a weirdly young agency hotshot to be with him. It’s like if Maya in ZERO DARK THIRTY decided instead of finding Osama bin Laden she should live in the basement of the shittiest member of the worst band in your city and sit on car hoods staring a the sky and listening to him talk about his thoughts on existence.

Something CLEARLY has to be wrong with this woman to choose this life willingly, and yet he has the nerve to get mad at her when he finds out her secret. He throws a tantrum like a baby instead of saying “you know what, that makes so much more sense, thank you so much for doing this for me, I clearly don’t deserve it and will never earn it.”

I can dig a good unlikable protagonist, like your bad lieutenant or santa or what have you, but I don’t think that’s what this is supposed to be. If this was Danny McBride or Will Ferrell or somebody the character’s obnoxiousness would be a source of humor, but the movie seems to play him more like it’s TRUE ROMANCE or something where you’re supposed to like and relate to his foibles. Audiences love foibles. There are a few violence-related laughs and a mildly amusing John Leguizamo (EXECUTIVE DECISION) drug dealer character who for some reason thinks he’s allowed to use the n-word. And for a minute it’s kind of cool to see Topher Grace (SPIDER-MAN 3) as the smarmy agency villain.

The best part of the movie is Connie Britton as the former head of the assassin project who goes off the reservation to try to help Mike. She doesn’t necessarily think he’s someone to hang out with, she just has a conscience, so it’s believable. Britton is very compelling as an agent who has to come out from behind the desk and risk herself, not because she’s gonna be good at it, but because she thinks it’s the right thing to do. And Walton Goggins does what he can with an assassin who’s supposed to be weird because he laughs inappropriately. Sorry Walton. Some day.

I was unclear why they had to kill Mike for being an assassin when they had a whole truck load of other assassins they send after him. Presumably they also have another truck of assassins to send after each assassin in this truck, and then other trucks for the ones in those trucks? I guess it probly has something to do with her saying he did better than the other ones. Because he can use a spoon to stab a guy or whatever. But I guess I just don’t really buy that he’s so much more dangerous than a thousand other killers.

On paper I do think the premise is kinda funny: a brainwashed ex-super agent is reactivated to defend himself, but he’s become too much of a stoner since leaving the program to figure out what’s going on. And I respect the idea to then treat that mostly seriously, with them having to deal with different layers of law enforcement and intelligence agency bureaucracy, getting set up, attacked by drones, etc. But it doesn’t really feel like a real action movie. These aren’t exciting sequences. And there aren’t many laughs to make up for that. So you’re left with a very sincere love story that I have trouble getting into since I find one of the characters so gratingly horrible.

I’ve seen reviews pinning the characters’ lack of appeal on Eisenberg and Stewart allegedly being wooden or un-energetic performers. I disagree and think Stewart especially is good in the role. I felt sorry for her character. This was directed by Nima Nourizadeh (PROJECT X) and written by Max Landis (CHRONICLE, VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN), and I think the latter is my problem with it. I confess that Landis is one of those rare filmmakers whose public persona I find so obnoxious that any traces of his personality that show up in his work become distracting to me. I couldn’t help but thinking he partly based this awful character on himself and that he thinks there’s something cool and romantic about how “fucked up” he always says he is.

To be fair, I used to feel similar about Kevin Smith’s movies. I had a hard time not thinking of his ensembles as a bunch of Kevin Smiths patting each other on the back for the clever things they say to each other, but I’ve softened to him over the years, and kind of liked his last couple movies. So some day many years from now Landis could have his TUSK.

Although AMERICAN ULTRA was considered a huge flop, it appears to have an enduring legacy. Many, including Landis himself, have speculated that Eisenberg based his squeaky-voiced, hyperactive pest version of Lex Luthor in BATMAN visits SUPERMAN on Landis, sort of like how Mike Myers based Dr. Evil on Lorne Michaels. Landis can help make a movie terrible without even lifting a finger, just by existing. That’s the kind of power he has. We need to send a truckload of other screenwriters to stop him.

I originally wrote this before seeing BATMAN verbally dresses down SUPERMAN, and now I feel kind of bad posting the reviews back-to-back because I hated Eisenberg’s acting in that as much as I hate his character in this. I just want to make it clear that this is not Let’s Turn On Jesse Eisenberg Week. It’s only movies where he plays a stand-in for Max Landis that I have a problem with him. I’ve enjoyed him in almost everything else I’ve seen him in, and I still believe he deserved best actor for THE SOCIAL NETWORK (Colin Firth won that year for THE KING’S PEACH).

He is a good actor. This one’s not his fault. This one’s on Alex Luthor.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Tuesday, March 29th, 2016 at 11:28 am and is filed under Action, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

37 Responses to “American Ultra”

  1. Yeah this thing really was a pile of shit, and I was so excited for it when I first saw the preview. A darker, slightly more serious Pineapple Express/Bourne hybrid sounded awesome, and they fucked it right up.

  2. Was it Max Landis that bitched nobody saw this because it was an original movie and not a remake or sequal? Yeah fuck that guy.

  3. I think my wife & I were literally the only two people in the world who liked this movie. I liked the characters, I laughed at the jokes, and I enjoyed the action. (But, yeah, it’s no King’s Peach.)

  4. Sternsheim: Still better than when one of the writers of the WATCHMEN movie wrote an open letter, begging people to see his movie again and comparing them to rape victims, who later realize that they enjoyed it.

    I might check this movie out once it hits TV or streaming, but man, I hated the director’s first movie (PROJECT X) so much, it would be hypocritical of me to never watch a Zack Snyder movie again after WATCHMEN, but give him another try after he made one of my top 3 most hated movies ever and most likely the worst movie of the decade.

  5. “CJ HOLDEN: Still better than when one of the writers of the WATCHMEN movie wrote an open letter, begging people to see his movie again and comparing them to rape victims, who later realize that they enjoyed it.”

    Wait, what?

  6. Daniel, you can make that three people. Though while I really enjoyed it, one of my first thoughts after watching was “I can absolutely see why someone would hate this”. Pretty much for the reasons Vern gives in his review.

  7. Okay, someone has to explain this Max Landis thing to me. I see his name used here and other places as a punchline, but I really don’t get it.

    I mean, I know he’s the son of John Landis, imdb tells me he wrote some pretty unremarkable shit, and… That’s all I got. What makes this guy the bottom of the barrel/worst of the worst/prince of darkness? I totally give up.

  8. Jojo – Listen to him on this podcast and you’ll get the idea.

  9. Jojo, I think it’s his online presence. He might have a blog or do a podcast or something. What I gather is, he’s a total douchebro who talks about pop culture as if he’s the oracle who is speaking the truth that everyone else is too stupid to see. But, really he’s putting forth ideas that everyone else has already had and shouting, “Wo! Did I just blow your mind, or what!” That’s the impression I get from the talk around here.

  10. Calm blue ocean. Calm blue ocean. Calm blue ocean.

  11. Oh yeah, I guess this is the open letter CJ mentions:

    Not a good use of metaphor.

  12. I honestly won’t get too heavily into this as I’m trying to purge myself of all things Lax Mandis related, but a quick scroll through his twitter feed will tell you everything you need to know about this insufferable asshole. And I don’t call people names lightly. And I think it runs far, far deeper than him just acting like the doyen of comic book lore.

  13. Sternshein – After clarifying his position on what he meant by “original ideas” (he was actually referring to original IPs, which is slightly better although the sentiment is fundamentally the same) ML bitched that nobody saw AMERICAN ULTRA because of the marketing. Then he used the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator to explain that, compared to the films that beat it opening weekend, AMERICAN ULTRA had better reviews. They were divisive but, on an aggregate scale, better. And the reasons that the films beat it was because they were based on established properties. And also they had better marketing.

    Then later he went on several rants about the dangers of aggregating reviews on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic and how they’re the cancer of film criticism because MR RIGHT has a 36% rating on RT or some shit.

    Point I’m trying to make is that it’s painful to see someone, anyone actually, remove themselves so completely from blame when something they are attached to doesn’t work out. Or use an established system as a crutch when it suits them, but put it on blast when it doesn’t.

    That ML acts like such an authority on so many other issues just exacerbates his obnoxiousness. And combined with his utterly sickening faux-self-deprecation the whole package is just too toxic to handle.

    I’m sorry. It’s my own fault for letting his schtick get to me. He just completely embodies the kind of person I absolutely despise (we’re not talking about criminality here I’m simply referring to personality types).

  14. Also, great review Vern. Been looking forward to this one for a long time.

  15. I knew if you ever reviewed this, Vern, that there was exactly zero percent chance you wouldn’t link to that song.

    I liked it. I thought Eisenberg and Stewart had great chemistry, which I’d already enjoyed in ADVENTURELAND. They’re good enough together that it didn’t bother me that she was so far out of his league. I also didn’t think of Eisenberg’s character as primarily an annoying stoner, but as a guy with real mental health issues who self-medicates. I know guys like that (sometimes I am a guy like that) so I felt some real sympathy for him right from the start. It gave some ballast to the film’s shaggy approach to plot and action.

    Maximum Landis isn’t half as clever as he thinks he is but so far I haven’t hated any of his actual work. So as long as I tune out the alarming idiocy he spews in his personal life on any available public forum, I think I can keep more or less enjoying the stuff he writes until he accidentally cranks out something good enough that it won’t matter how much he sucks as a person or he just goes away. Either will be fine with me.

    The one real missed joke opportunity was when the two assassins are introduced. Gopher Trace says something like “Get me Crane and Laugher” and then it cuts to Goggins laughing maniacally. The other assassin should have said, real deadpan like, “Give it a rest, Crane.”

  16. Oh, okay. Thanks for clarifying.
    Since I don’t do twitter (or listen to any podcasts) I miss a lot of “online presences,” which is fine by me. If I patronize a butcher, baker, or candle-stick maker it’s based on the quality of their steaks, cakes or candles. Their thoughts on pretty much anything are more or less irrelevant to me.

    Thus far, Max Landis has made some pretty unremarkable cakes, so I’ll take my sweet-tooth elsewhere…

  17. Man, I’m disappointed in the voice of Solid Snake.

    Anyway, I kinda like Max Landis, he’s an asshole but he amuses me.

  18. He just seems like too easy a target to beat up on, I don’t really like when people beat up on too easy targets, like Tom Cruise.

  19. Thanks for that link, Vern.

    Damn it, Hayter. I was with you for so much of that, but “Just like Sally” at the end? Yeesh.

  20. Still, I do have to say that I enjoyed Landis’ DEATH OF SUPERMAN and WRESTLING ISN’T WRESTLING videos. They rely maybe too heavy on the “Look at all those celebrity friends in my video!” gimmick, but he makes some good points and especially the wrestling video is refreshing in the way how he actually celebrates something and tries to convince us of its coolness, instead of telling us over and over that it’s the worst thing ever, like most popculture “critics” do these days.

  21. Speaking of Goggins, as well as Danny McBride

    Vice Principals: Tease (HBO)

    Subscribe to the HBO YouTube: http://itsh.bo/10qIqsj Danny McBride and Walton Goggins star in Vice Principals, the story of a high school and the two people ...

    This looks awesomely funny.

  22. I really, really like Max Landis as a person. I feel like he’s my more-productive clone.

    Don’t like all his films, but I e read like 8 of his scripts and they’re great on the page.

  23. Mr. Majestyk – props. Your rewrite of the assassins intro is solid.

    I pay literally no attention whatsoever to Maximilian Landis’s public persona. I’m not on Twitter and I don’t seek out his stuff so I don’t expose myself to his douchebaggery. Solely going off his work I like two of the two movies he’s written that I’ve seen (Chronicle was decent).

    That David Hayter letter is way miscalculated.

    That’s all I got.

  24. George Sanderson

    March 30th, 2016 at 4:14 pm

    King’s Peach. Still laughing.

  25. Max Landis…I don’t have much experience therewith, but: 1) son of John and especially 2) born in 1985 and involved in the commercial/creative “arts”. There you go.

  26. Well I didn’t like the characters (except the one acted by Connie Briton) but I enjoyed this film I think based on cinematography. Not that it was particularly special but I liked the colour palette and I’m sucker for close up shots of the actors’ faces. The story was not really interesting but I didn’t fall asleep during it either. It definitely is not a keeper but I wasn’t sorry I watched it.

  27. So a few minutes into this I remember thinking “ohhh… so it’s like a stoner version of the bourne identity.” Then I was mildly amused by the spoon scene. Every minute after that I was wondering why I wouldn’t just watch the bourne movies again. This movie has no reason to exist. It’s not satire, it fails at being funny, AND at romance. Everything is shot in the back of a carpark or inside a soundstage pretending to be a generic house pretending to be interesting. The choreography is fucking awful. The spoon scene was all right, I’m not sure if it was shot better or it was because of the buildup and the slapstick, but every scene after that was basically poorly shot backyard WWE with absolutely no style or competence. Like the comic… the whole thing feels like the scrawlings in a stoner’s notebook.

  28. I actually really liked this movie, considering I usually can’t stand the two lead actors and the fact that Max Landis is a fucking twat. Thought the supporting cast of Walton Goggins, Connie Britton, Topher Grace and John Leguizamo made up for the short comings of the leads. I actually though Stewart was meant to be a stoner in the film as well, until I realised that’s her default look in everything.

    I thought you would have at least enjoyed this Vern, as the action is quite well done in a DTV movie kind of way. I do agree though that having Eisenberg be so unlikeable is quite an obstacle for the film.

  29. Jareth Cutestory

    April 24th, 2016 at 8:38 am

    I only know Landis from that time he visited Red Letter Media. I didn’t get “dudebro” from him at all; quite the opposite: he seems like a harmless aesthete with a liberal dash of what in the 80s we’d call “spaziness.” His sense of humor is far too robust, self-aware and self-effacing to be lumped in with a bonehead like Snyder of Bay.

    Maybe his life as a Hollywood insider has led to some exaggerated mannerisms and a painfully insular outlook on the world, but his boundless enthusiasm for genre and filmatism in general isn’t all that different from Tarantino.

    But then I’ve never bothered with his (or anyone else’s) Twitter, lacking as I do fluency in that particular language. So I could be wrong.

  30. Soooo…am I the only one who is not against an AMERICAN WEREWOLF remake? Okay, I wish it would be done by someone who is a bit more competent, but honestly, the original isn’t a flawless masterpiece. Scriptwise it’S a huge mess, with the first 2/3 being mostly an endless string of nightmare scenes, embedded into a boring and chemistry free love story. I like the movie, but I’m open to a new interpretation. Even if it’s done by [redacted].

  31. It´s the transformation sequence that made it a classic. It really conveyed the sense that becoming a werewolf was no fucking picnic. And any romantic notion of howling in the moonlight was thrown out. It really felt like a curse and not a cool monster you´d become.

  32. I really like werewolf movies and outside of LAST PHASES, there does not seem to be that many these days that are good, so I am willing to give it a chance.

  33. Unfortunately there aren’t many good werewolf movies at all. Don’t know why. Even vampires have a shit ton of good or even great movies!

  34. I count American Werewolf in London as one of my favorite horror films. I do think it’s close to a masterpiece. It does such a fantastic job of balancing out humor and horror, and ultimately it has a pretty vicious sense of humor. I think the dream sequences are great and the transformations might be the best we’ll ever see on screen.

    And I don’t know what Max Landis will get out of remaking this film. It only highlights that he’s a product of nepotism, which is true of so much Hollywood, but people seem to ignore it if you are talented or likable. There’s also nearly zero chance that his film is going to be better than his dad’s, so he’s just setting himself up for failure. I watched American Ultra not too long ago, figuring that I’d give this guy a shot, and it was not very good. There were a couple of moments here and there, but the movie just does not hang together at all.

  35. I think what makes AMERICAN WEREWOLF perfect is how imperfect it is. It meanders, it frustrates, it leaves you hanging, and that’s what’s interesting about it. Any effort to improve it will start by fixing its mistakes, which will only succeed in making it more obvious and thus less interesting.

    Landis, of course, knows this, but one gets the sense this was his ace in the hole. His last big chance that he’s been saving for an emergency. Universal has no doubt been wanting a remake for years, Landis needs a hit badly, and here we go. “Dad, can I take the beloved masterpiece out for a drive?”

  36. I have not seen a single Max Landis film as of yet, so my position on this is neutral. I like to stay positiv on the prospect of a ptentially good werewolf film, even though Max Landis might have triggered the silent alarm.

  37. He’s a textbook douche, but I actually don’t mind his work. As I mentioned above, he’s not half as clever as he thinks he is, but that’s still slightly cleverer than most, and movies could use a little more clever nowadays. But he’s done nothing to merit the level of opportunity he’s had, and it’s clear that any and all audience goodwill for him has run out. He needs a sure thing, and this is what Hollywood thinks a sure thing looks like. If this flops, I don’t think even nepotism can save him.

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