American Ultra is like the seven-layer dip Mrs. Filthy made for her company picnic. It sounds pretty damn good, and the pictures on the Internet look tasty, with gently folded cheese, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, gummy bears--because we had more of those than avocados--salsa and, the critical seventh ingredient, love. The love was my contribution, because I didn’t know that sour cream and cream cheese are two different things and, apparently, you can’t substitute one for the other.
The problem is that no matter how delicious that seven-layer dip once was, it took so damn long to get from the kitchen to the park that only two layers survived for the guests: the beans and love. I ate the rest. It no longer looked as inviting as those Internet pictures. It looked exactly like what it was: a heap of beans that someone had foraged through.
Like a seven-layer dip, American Ultra has common ingredients, but can still surprise with a few new twists. A West Virginia stoner with a go-nowhere job in a convenience store is actually a dormant super-assassin for the CIA. He doesn’t even know he’s a super-assassin until a CIA operative activates him and he starts killing people.
That’s a nice, tasty dish, right? You’d scoop up some of that shit with a Frito, even if you were sober. One time I was drunk at this guy’s party and he set a big dish of dip on the floor. I thought that was weird but I ate it because I was also lying on the floor and all the pizza rolls were way up high on counters. After a couple hours, someone told me it wasn’t dip. It was the cat’s litter box. The thing is, there was this really cute girl at that party and I didn’t want to look stupid in front of her, so I just kept eating it like I already knew that. Plus, that dude still invites me back to his parties and always makes sure there are plenty of Fritos and cat shit for me.
Back to American Ultra. A seven-layer dip movie sounds okay on paper, but not after the long trip from there to screen. Months, maybe years, of greasy Hollywood grassfuckers sticking their hands into it. Out go the gummy bears. Out goes the cheese. Out go the jokes, the secondary characters, the fish out of water learning to adapt. Out goes the subtlety, the love. All the audience gets is the refried beans of cinema: 80s Jean Claude Van Damme style action sequences.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, a gentle, daydreaming cartoonist muddling through life with a bong and a girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) he’d really like to marry, up until a strange woman (Connie Britton) approaches his cash register at the Cash-n-Carry, says a few code words and flips a switch in his brain he didn’t know he had. Instantly, he’s a killing machine. And he kills like I wish I shat: regularly and firmly. There are flames, butcher knives, guns by the truckload, fisticuffs, military vehicles, fireworks, a loose gun skittering across the floor and an phalanx of psychotic hitmen. Basically, the entire Van Damme canon, but with Eisenberg faking the martial arts.
The woman who activates Mike is a rogue agent acting against the wishes of her superior (Topher Grace in a sad, sad career choice), a man of such schene-chewing villainy that he’d be more at home running a haunted amusement park in a Scooby Doo episode (one of with Scrappy Doo). Grace’s agent wants Mike dead. Why right at this moment is never clear. Neither is why he’s such an asshole about it. And why the woman is warned in advance and is able to, or wants to, activate Mike makes no sense. In fact, an explanation that comes late in the movie is as tacked on and stupid-looking as Eeyore’s tail.
In American Ultra, the CIA comes across as being as incompetent as third graders with chainsaws. Maybe in real life they are, but in American Ultra they should be feared for their efficient brutality. Yet, in every scene, they fuck up and make terrible decisions. They cell phones aren’t secure; they infight more than rich twins; they’re as discrete with a secret as the National Enquirer.These are the unintentional result of lazy filmmaking choices, of not knowing what the fuck you’re talking about. They’re not a commentary on modern day espionage.
An activated Mike sees more bloodshed than the bathroom of an all-girl boarding school. The dead bodies pile up like palettes behind a Home Depot. Lost among the explosions is what was supposed to make this movie different from all the other stories of people waking up with unique powers and responsibilities. Mike is supposed to be a stoner with small ambitions. Sure, there are scenes where he is, but they butt right up against far unoriginal scenes of him remorselessly beating the shit out of people, with the lightning reflexes of Van Damme and the cornball ingenuity of MacGyver. The Mike we are introduced to at the beginning would hate what he becomes, but no. He doesn’t regret the killing. He doesn’t look back. He just keep killing.
That stoner / killer dichotomy should have been the source of American Ultra’s jokes. It isn’t confronted and the comedy layer is missing from. I like to think it got ripped out by some grassfucker who wanted a simpler movie, a more direct hero and more action. Complex characters are confusing to Hollywood. I don’t want to believe that writer Max Landis was this fucking confused when he wrote it.
Some grassfucking beancounter also took out the context layer. It’s as though the story happens in a hermetically sealed bubble consisting solely of law enforcement, Mike and his girlfriend. Subsequently, there is no sense of how all this violence and CIA badness affects the larger world, or the community Mike lives in, because it’s like a deserted wasteland where not even extras could be afforded. Empty streets, empty stores. A far better story would have been for a stoner / killer to be activated into the larger world and with a more critical mission than simply saving his own ass. Send a guy whose world-class assassin skills have been clouded by pot and lethargy to save the world.
As it is, despite the high body count and damage to property, the only thing at stake is whether or not Mike will survive. Maybe that’s enough, but American Ultra’s own ending seems to suggest otherwise. Mike would rather be a stone-cold killer than a stoner.
Potheads may want to like American Ultra because its hero smokes out. That’s like rooting for dumbfucks on the Wheel of Fortune just because they come from your hometown. It’s like screaming “Wooo!” when the rock band says “Hello, Denver,” because that’s where you are. All you’re doing by liking a shitty movie with a hero who shares your recreational habit is telling Hollywood how damn easy it is to get your money. I say it’s okay to smoke weed and still demand better.
This is no seven-layer dip, the best layers have been scooped out by the incompetent hands of the Hollywood machine. And what’s left isn’t love. Or cat shit. Two Fingers for American Ultra.