American Ultra [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (12th December 2015).
The Film

Slacker Mike Howell ('s Jesse Eisenberg) has a perfectly fucked-up life in Liman, West Virginia working the night shift in a Cash & Carry and getting high with girlfriend Phoebe (Twilight's Kristen Stewart). Prone to extreme panic attacks whenever he tries to leave town, Mike starts to feel like he is holding Phoebe back after his latest panic attack scuttles their planned trip to Hawaii where he planned to propose to her. His night is about to get worse, however, when he suddenly disarms and executes two sinister men in black who were planting a bomb under his car. At a loss to explain himself to his girlfriend or the sheriff (I Know What You Did Last Summer's Stuart Greer), Mike and Phoebe end up sharing a jail cell until the police station is infiltrated with guns blazing by the psychotic Laugher (Django Unchained's Walton Goggins) and grenade-tossing Crane (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters's Monique Ganderton) sent by CIA agent Yates (Interstellar's Topher Grace) to test his Toughguy agents by eliminating the subjects of Wiseman experiment shut down by its creator Lasseter (American Horror Story's Connie Britton). Escaping the fiery remains of the police station, Mike and Phoebe discover that the town has been quarantined with the media reporting the false story of a Typhoid outbreak spread by "animal activists" Mike and Lasseter who is in town and facing treason charges for trying to protect Mike by activating him. With paranoia causing Mike's friends including his dealer Rose (John Wick's John Leguizamo) to turn on him and Yates' threats preventing Lasseter's former assistant Petey (Arrested Development's Tony Hale) from supplying her with further intel, the two must band together to take down Yates and his Toughguys (extremely disturbed mental patients now trained as killers on command) before Yates blows up the entire town just to eliminate Mike.

A sort of stoner take on The Bourne Identity (with a little bit of Chuck and a coda side of the tiresome Mr. and Mrs. Smith), American Ultra is rarely funny when it wants to be and its action scenes only intermittently achieve the visceral reaction solicited by the carnage (which may be more engaging to video game players, stoned or otherwise). All of the spy movie template revelations are easily predicted, and neither Eisenberg or Stewart are sufficiently interesting to make that forgivable or to make the love story at the crux of the plot compelling. While it is interesting to see Grace attempting to be the polar opposite of his That 70's Show persona, Goggins gives it the old college try, Hale and Leguizamo phone in their respective shticks, while the casting of Britton and Bill Pullman (Lost Highway) as Yates' and Lasseter's superior seems completely random. Without the stoner-isms, American Ultra might have been a painless identikit spy thriller, but it ultimately fails to succeed as a comic spy thriller or a parody of genre conventions.

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Video

Shot with the Arri Alexa, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.40:1 image can be crisp and detailed in close-ups and well-lit sequences, but the film is primarily set and night and makes excessive use of actual and digitally-created lens flare in exteriors and interiors which combined with the mostly desaturated blue and green color scheme that afflicts action films of late makes for a rather drab-looking picture apart from the scenes in Rose's blacklight-lit basement.
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Audio

The primary audio track is English DTS:X, DTS' rival configuration to Dolby Atmos. The core is DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1, and even that at first seems like overkill for a film about a slacker but the mix makes full use of the surround field with explosions, flying drones, gunshots, stabbing, slashing, and Mike's flashes of memory that assail him from all channels. Besides a Spanish DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, the disc also includes a variant English mix in standard DTS 2.0 stereo surround optimized for late night viewing (presumably in the basements of the parents of the film's age demographic) and an English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo descriptive audio track this track along with Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish tracks are included on the DVD). Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, and Spanish.
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Extras

Extras start off with an audio commentary by director Nima Nourizadeh in which the director spends a lot of time discussing the "fun shoot", the supposed chemistry between the leads, the digital enhancements to the scenes (including pot smoke and somehow turning a frying pan into a skillet with CGI), and the structure of the film as if viewers are unused to the flashback structure and how revelations throughout the course of the film place a different spin on the opening scene when it recurs at the end.
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Activating "American Ultra" documentary (40:22) is a lengthy two-part featurette covering every aspect of the production with the usual talking heads (with Stewart comparing her chemistry with Eisenberg to Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn) and some interesting looks at how some action scenes looked before the visual effects and color timing was performed. Most interesting are the comments from writer Max Landis on his concept of the story and the spin it puts on action movie cliches from the eighties and nineties. Rather than looking at choreographing the stunts and creating the make-up and visual effects on a budget, Assassinating on a Budget (3:25) is a jokey featurette that ascribes prices to the various unconventional weapons Mike uses from a cup of noodles to a tea kettle, while the gag reel (2:42) is a montage of unfunny flubs and some humorous fumbles during the fight scenes.

Overall

Without the stoner-isms, American Ultra might have been a painless identikit spy thriller, but it ultimately fails to succeed as a comic spy thriller or a parody of genre conventions.
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The Film: C+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: C+ Overall: B

 


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