American Ultra (2015) by The Critical Movie Critics

Movie Review: American Ultra (2015)

A common criticism of modern filmmaking is a lack of originality. And in a medium of formulaic genre styles that thrive on remakes, reboots, sequels and extended cinematic universes, it’s perhaps a valid point to make. Yet there is one main advantage to movies that carry a sense of familiarity — consistency. Whether it is in tone, execution of a plot or overall direction, establishing expectations can be a considerable asset for the movie-going audience.

In Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra, these parameters are, for better or worse, largely thrown to the wind. The end result is a self-sabotaging movie filled to the brim with ideas that can’t help but clash with each other.

We follow the character of Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg, “Night Moves”), a small-town man of simple concerns including drugs, his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, “Clouds of Sils Maria”) and . . . well, that about covers it. But little does Mike know that he is, in fact, a deadly sleeper agent created by the government in a secret project known as the Ultra program. But with the project under the control of CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace, “Interstellar”), all such agents have been ordered to be destroyed. Mike must now use his dormant abilities to protect himself and Phoebe and finally discover the truth about his past.

Sound confusing? That’s only because it is. Yet with that being said, the convoluted plot is the least of the problems plaguing this film. And that is kind of a pity because one can almost see the direction the filmmakers may have been aiming toward — a sort of Scott Pilgrim-esque variation on a spy adventure. But what could have been an interesting, stylized vision quickly falters under the weight of its own construct.

The central quality that stands as the most distracting through the 95-minute running time of American Ultra is that it can’t decide on what kind of movie it is. In one minute, we’re in an offbeat love story with Mike and Phoebe, then we’re in a wacky stoner adventure as our protagonist discovers his true potential, then we’re in a disturbingly gritty, grisly and mean-spirited action film which occasionally skirts with a vague idea that it also wants to crack a joke here and there. With so many disparate tones at play in a movie that doesn’t take much time to explain motivations or character backgrounds, there’s little else one can do besides let the nonsense ineffectually wash over them and inevitably puzzle over the vexing conundrum, “What did I just watch?”

In all fairness, the picture is not without its endearing qualities. Eisenberg and Stewart especially play off of each other quite well both in action scenes and more intimate moments. In fact, the cast at large — Connie Britton (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”), John Leguizamo (“Chef”), among others — delivers a range of strong performances. What’s regretful is that many of them seem to be acting in completely different films. Most of all, despite the execution being more than a little bit muddled, one has to admire the creative team for at least reaching in the direction of something original, which can sometimes be something of a rarity.

American Ultra isn’t exactly what one would call a “bad” movie. It’s hard to even say what an accurate classification for it would be. But when pushed, the most succinct qualifier might simply be “frustrating.” Yet with some genuinely interesting ideas behind it, it’s easy to picture a reality where American Ultra works. It’s just too bad we’re not living in it.

Critical Movie Critic Rating:
2 Star Rating: Bad


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The Critical Movie Critics

Stephen is a writer and avid entertainment critic. In addition to his work on the Critical Movie Critics, he produces his own website, The Paper Masque along with two podcasts, The Paper Masque Podcast and Movies with a Mask On. He also is a co-host on The Alfred Hitchcast, a retrospective podcast focusing on the works of Alfred Hitchcock.

'Movie Review: American Ultra (2015)' have 12 comments

  1. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 23, 2015 @ 5:45 pm Name the Baby

    Not stoner enough. Thought it missed a lot of comedy opportunities. Has a lot of ultra violence which is good.

  2. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 23, 2015 @ 6:28 pm coldplay

    Jesse Eisenberg as Jason Bourne stoned. Not exactly a compelling way to draw in the masses.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      September 5, 2015 @ 11:57 am Mutually Assured

      He’s more of an anxiety suffering Jason Bourne.

  3. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 23, 2015 @ 6:42 pm rombus01

    Panned or not it looks like something different so I’ll give it a go.

  4. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 23, 2015 @ 7:31 pm phneutral

    Stewart and Eisenberg play off each other well in this because they played off each other remarkabley well in Adventureland. I think they’re both underrated actors, her moreso than him, and deserve more credit than they get.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      August 24, 2015 @ 10:11 am hotrod dragster

      It’s hard to forget how bad she was in the turd that was the Twilights and Snow White and the Huntsman, but I agree she was good in The Runaways, Still Alice and great in Clouds of Sils Maria.

    • The Critical Movie Critics

      August 26, 2015 @ 2:57 pm Montreal_Tissuepaper

      Something is off about KS. She seems standoffish. It’s like she is hiding a dark secret.

      JE looks to be an affable guy.

  5. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 23, 2015 @ 9:00 pm Eric

    The stoner action comedy got lucky once with Pineapple Express. Without Rogen, Franco, McBride and the Apatow machine behind it American Ultra won’t get far.

  6. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 24, 2015 @ 1:59 pm Wally

    It looks absolutely stupid.

  7. The Critical Movie Critics

    August 25, 2015 @ 7:38 pm Iced.Tea

    I kinda liked it. Inventive enough to separate itself from the summer pack I thought.

  8. The Critical Movie Critics

    October 10, 2016 @ 9:27 am Chip

    The films good, watch it. Don’t listen to this cretin, make up your own mind. Who cares what some brain damaged talking head thinks about a film anyway.
    Peace and love xox

  9. The Critical Movie Critics

    October 10, 2016 @ 8:50 pm Chip

    Stoner comedy got lucky once? You clearly haven’t seen many films! There are countless stoner comedies!

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