American Ultra is a dynamic thrill ride that mixes explosive action with edgy humor. Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) shares a small-town life with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). But Mike's sleepy world goes wild after he discovers that he's actually a CIA sleeper agent with lethal fighting skills-and the target of government hitmen. Mike, the ultimate slacker, transforms into an ultra-attacker as he and Phoebe fight to survive in this exhilarating adventure.
'American Ultra' may not be a perfect movie. It may tread old ground in a somewhat familiar way, but it does so with a cast that brings the material to life. Without this cast – especially Jesse Eisenberg's stuttering bravado – 'American Ultra' could've turned into (gasp!) 'Hitman: Agent 47.'
A stoner comedy with guns and ultra-violence, 'American Ultra' is the story of a dimwitted sleeper CIA agent who doesn't know he's a sleeper CIA agent. Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is a paranoid pothead who suffers from intense panic attacks whenever he tries to leave the small town of Liman, West Virginia. His long-suffering girlfriend Pheobe (Kristen Stewart) has stuck with him through it all, even though the two of them are royally messed up.
Eisenberg and Stewart have an instant chemistry that carries the movie through its slower, more predictable parts. Their blossoming romance amid the carnage of blood and bullets is something that feels genuine even in a dark comedy like this.
Secretly the CIA is shutting down the program that Mike is unwittingly a part of. Deep inside the recesses of Mike's intoxicated mind are instincts and genetic engineering that created a super soldier. Eisenberg is the best actor for the job in this case. Mike's paranoid proclivities are constantly fighting the Jason Bourne-esque character trying to escape. Once Mike feels threatened by the CIA descending on his small town in order to kill him, he turns into a killing machine, yet he fights with himself the entire movie. Eisenberg is great at second-guessing himself and portraying that with confused facial expressions and verbal tics.
The action scenes in 'American Ultra' border on the obscene at times. Director Nima Nourizadeh seems to be taking a page from the Matthew Vaughn's 'Kick-Ass' here as he splashes the scenery with over-the-top amounts of blood and gore. At times the shock-and-awe violence can feel a little mean-spirited, which is a shame.
Bolstering the movie even more is the addition of an ensemble cast that includes Topher Grace as a power-hungry CIA bureaucrat who acts like an adolescent on a power trip when he's been handed the mission to take out Mike; Connie Britton as the motherly CIA manager who risks her life to warn Mike that they're coming; Walton Goggins as a sadistic special agent only known as Laugher, and for good reason; John Leguizamo as Mike's buddy/drug dealer; and Tony Hale as a conflicted CIA desk jockey who juggles loyalties constantly. It's a strong cast that inherently elevates Max Landis' script.
The weakness of the movie lies in the action scenes themselves, and the confusing choreography. There are a few sequences, like the one in the supermarket, which are wonderfully mapped out. Then there are some hand-to-hand combat scenes that are devoid of visual reason. Sometimes it's impossible to tell what's going on, who's shooting who, where they are in relation to each other, and where they're going.
Taken simply as a blood-soaked action movie 'American Ultra' is middle-of-the-road film festival fare. However, with Eisenberg expertly inhabiting his role with what he does best the movie reaches a different level. Add to that the not-so-surprising (really, she's quite a good actress, 'Twilight' movies notwithstanding) performance from Stewart who adds heft to the movie's emotion and motivation for its driving action.
'American Ultra' is often funny, sometimes creative, and quite beholden to its delightful cast inhabiting the roles of lovable maniacs.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a 2-disc set, one 50GB Blu-ray and a DVD. The set also comes complete with a UltraViolet/iTunes Digital Copy. A slipcover is also provided.
As one might expect, the 1080p transfer of this recently filmed movie looks crisp, clear, and natural. It was shot digitally, and may at times suffer from a lack of depth, but on the whole the entire presentation looks quite good.
There's a stunning amount of detail in close-ups and long-range shots. Blood, dirt, and grime are clearly present on faces. You can even see the veins in eyeballs during ultra close-ups. Dark areas might be a little flat, which is expected with digitally filmed movies. It isn't an eyesore though, and it isn't even a nuisance. The flatness is just there from time to time, lurking in the shadows.
Colors pop though. This is a vibrant, colorful presentation that bursts with blues, yellows, and reds. The blacklight sequence offers some great alternative color imagery too. While this might not be the demo-worthy title you use to show off your setup to your friends, but it certainly won't be one that disappoints either.
'American Ultra' actually features a DTS:X mix, which utilizes a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix as its core. This is only the second movie – the other being 'Ex Machina' – to feature a DTS:X mix on the home video release. As this is a brand-new technology, we will be reviewing the DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 mix. My recently purchased receiver is DTS:X compatible, but my home theater isn't configured for it as of yet. I was hoping that 'American Ultra' would feature the same DTS:HeadphoneX option that 'Ex Machina' has, however, no such luck.
That said, the 7.1 mix is sharp and brutally efficient. Something this movie does well is work creatively and quickly with fast, hard sound. The immersive experience is almost immediate as the side and rear channels pump out the heavy sound effects with ease. The sub-woofer is constantly engaged, offering up quick thuds and low heavy rumbles.
Up front Eisenberg's stuttering and mumbling can be heard quite clearly. Gunfights pinball sound back and forth through the sound field showcasing its deft directionality and prioritization. This is a superb sound mix, and one can only expect with a properly configured and calibrated DTS:X listening environment, this one would be exceptionally flawless and demo-worthy.
Audio Commentary – Director Nima Nourizadeh offers up the commentary here.
Activating 'American Ultra' (HD, 40 min.) – Behind-the-scenes footage and on-set featurettes take us through a surprisingly lengthy look at how 'American Ultra' and its production.
Assassinating on a Budget (HD, 3 min.) – A montage of the scenes where Mike ends up taking dispatching of enemies through frugal means.
Gag Reel (HD, 3 min.) – Standard laughs, flubs, and guffaws.
'American Ultra' wasn't half bad. It wasn't great either. It's one of those movies you see and there's a good possibility you'll forget about it a day later. Though, Eisenberg is charming enough, and there's enough talent on screen to elevate the somewhat stale material. The visuals are technically proficient, and the audio is superb as it ushers in an entirely new home theater listening technology. All those things add up to it being worth a look.