Home » Years » 2015 » American Ultra •••1/2

American Ultra •••1/2

American_Ultra_posterStarring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenplay: Max Landis
Action/Comedy, Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Date: August 21, 2015


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Well, Greg. Other countries have had their ultra, whatever that is. Now it’s America’s turn.

I think it should have been called Apollo Ape – that’s an inside joke for those who have seen it! Let’s recap:

We meet a young man, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives in a small town in West Virginia. Mike is a likeable pot-head who works at a convenience store. Despite having a number of quirks and phobias, he does have a cute girlfriend named Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). He wants to propose marriage to Phoebe but has trouble finding just the right time to do so.

Things are going along pretty well when one day a strange woman in dark glasses shows up at the convenience store where he works. She says some strange things to him and leaves. Soon, a couple of goons show up and try to kill him. He goes into overdrive and slashes one dude’s throat with a spoon and disarms the other one and kills him with his own gun. Where did Mike get these super-spy abilities?

American Ultra is a quirky yet entertaining tale that taps into a mythic archetype with universal appeal. The hero is a person who is unaware of his special heritage, his exceptional pedigree. He has a type of amnesia at the outset of the story, and the whole point of the narrative is to witness him undergo many trials to discover his true special nature. We see this in fables and fairy tales about a protagonist who is oblivious about his or her royal birthright, and the story is all about reclaiming that birthright. It’s a narrative structure that has great appeal.

We’re apparently drawn to stories in which appearances about the hero are deceiving. Especially stories where the hero seems, at least on the surface, to be a harmless, weak pushover. But once placed in danger, the hero is a remarkably skilled fighting machine. We’ve seen this type of character in Red and The Equalizer. We tend to revere heroes who mask their greatness.

I think of this story is more like The Bourne Identity in which Matt Damon has exactly the same experience. Except, in American Ultra, we’re given the unlikely hero of a stoner who can barely feed himself and his girlfriend, let alone kick someone’s ass.

While on the surface Mike seems to be an unlikely hero, he has some redeeming qualities. He’s very good to his girlfriend (who loves him for unseen reasons). He’s very honest. And he has some clever ideas for a graphic novel based on an ape who was part of the Apollo program – hence the reference to Apollo Ape earlier. Aside from being clueless, he’s a genuinely nice guy who suffers from anxiety attacks.

You’re right, Greg. And he’s certainly transformed into a different person by the end of this movie, and not just by virtue of discovering his identity but more importantly by his development of personal, professional, and romantic self-confidence. This is a man who learns how to achieve his goals, get the girl, and become a great person who will succeed in life. He’s a far cry from the sniveling dorky goofball whom we see at the film’s outset.

In two movies we’ve seen recently (Ant-Man and Mission: Impossible-Rogue Nation) we’ve encountered secondary heroic characters who provide comic relief. In American Ultra, we meet a dark jester character (Walton Goggins) — a villain with a creepy laugh who makes light of the carnage he wreaks, much like the Joker or the Riddler in Batman. Interestingly, once the dark jester is defeated, he confesses his admiration for Michael in a speech that tugs at our heartstrings. Are the filmmakers here telling us that anyone with a sense of humor can’t be all bad? Do we have a deep-seated need for funny people to show redemption?

And don’t forget the role Phoebe plays. She’s not just a romantic interest for our hero. She is a sort of mentor as well. (SPOILER) It turns out she’s Mike’s handler from the CIA. She gave up her life as an agent to stay with Mike and watch over him once the CIA was done with his special abilities. And, as a CIA agent, she, too has special ass-kicking powers, albeit not as refined as Mike’s.

The villain in this story is CIA manager Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). Yates is a fast-rising star at the CIA and is eager to make his mark. He has created his own army of operatives who have a much less subtle way of dealing with threats. Among the was the “Laugher” character you mentioned, Scott. But there are a team of minions who wreak havoc on Mike’s small town. This is the classic Mastermind/Henchman pattern we mention in our book Reel Heroes & Villains. Also, we’re shown a pattern we’ve seen this year: “minions” – characters who are a sort of nameless/faceless mass of character whose apparent role is to die strange and horrible deaths.

American Ultra is fun romp that provides just the right balance between serious drama and semi-farce. Jesse Eisenberg does a stellar job of striking all the right notes during both the grim and lighthearted moments. His character Mike transforms from a loveable loser to an unstoppable heroic force. There are no huge surprises in this film but it still exudes charm and provides good solid entertainment. I give it 3 Reels out of 5.

The hero transformation here is as striking as one will ever find in the movies. We have a story that captures all the elements of the mythic archetypal narrative of the sleeping beauty, the ugly duckling, the Cinderella who is destined to rise from the basement to the penthouse. Mike gets assistance from two important women in the story and must defeat a team of formidable villains. I award Mike 4 Heroes out of 5.

The supporting characters are rock solid, albeit the villains are stereotypical and uni-dimensional. Still, they include an interesting dark jester figure, and they do their job of endangering our hero’s life and making his transformation as difficult to achieve as possible. I award the supporting group a rating of 3 out of 5.

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American Ultra is to Jason Bourne as Austin Powers is to Jame Bond. This is a fun and well-deployed film. It takes the stereotypes of the amnesiac protagonist and plays them the their ridiculous conclusions. While Mike was trained for subtle killing, he is pitted against a team of heavy-handed hoodlums. This contrast makes for great comedy as well as exciting action. I give American Ultra 4 out of 5 Reels.

As an unlikely hero, Mike Howell couldn’t have been better drawn. He’s a likable slob who is unreliable but loves his girlfriend. His transformation into a physically and mentally strong character gives all of us reason to feel good about ourselves. And isn’t that what heroes are for after all? I give Mike 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The secondary characters are a mix of strong women and weak men. Phoebe turns out to be loyal, honest, and competent. (And kudos to Kristen Stewart who has had bad luck to date. She delivers in this film). Her boss, Lasseter (Connie Britton) is brilliant and tough. These are two women who are not to be taken lightly. Lasseter’s second-in-command Petey (Tony Hale from Veep) is a limp-wristed comic relief character who is weak at first, but does the right thing in the end. The villain Yates is a cardboard cutout of the yuppie who is stuck on himself. His henchman Laugher is probably more interesting as he exposes the dark side of what Mike’s life could have been. I give this supporting cast 3 out of 5 Cast points.

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