American Ultra is simply not a good movie, and I’m not certain whether it ever had the potential to be one. I’ll try and explain several things that this film had working against it.
First, the film has “American” in the title, this joins a very long list of films like American Beauty, American Psycho, American Pie, and so forth. For some reason, putting the adjective in front of “American” seems to imply something negative. I don’t think that speaks highly of the United States, and kind of shows what we Americans think of ourselves, and it isn’t good.
Second, the film is a rip-off of The Bourne Identity. The thing is that the film knows this, it even takes place in a fictional town of Liman, West Virginia. Why that name? Why, the director of The Bourne Identity was Doug Liman. Get it? I don’t many people did.
Third, the story has that really weak framing device where it begins after the events in the film are over, and so the audience has to wait practically the entire length of the movie for it to catch up to itself. I’m really tired of this type of beginnings. By the way, there are spoilers ahead, so you might want to stop reading and start watching the film if you want to see it.
Anyway, a proper beginning actually happens as we get some narration about how the main character, Mike Howell, is in love with his girlfriend and has no memories before he met her. Mike is played by Jesse Eisenberg, who seems to only play one type of character, and it shouldn’t be Lex Luthor. Okay, elephant addressed, let’s move on to the girl that he’s in love with, Phoebe Larson, played by Kristen Stewart, and you can insert your own Twilight joke here (second elephant addressed).
Mike wants to take Phoebe on vacation, but he can’t seem to make it on the plane due to some odd phobias he has. Mike wants to propose to Phoebe, but he keeps messing it up. Mike is also a drug addict, but since Nancy Reagan isn’t the First Lady, he can be the protagonist of this film.
Actually, why he is on drugs makes sense, as it has established that he has issues. He is able to function at a regular job, and he works a night shift at a convenience store. One day, a strange federal agent comes into his store, and says a series of words in a random order. It is pretty clear that Mike is a sleeper agent and that is supposed to activate him, and it eventually does. The worst part is when these two men come up to capture him, he reacts just like Mike Damon did in…The Bourne Identity.
By the way, there is this plotline involving a governmental bureaucracy, and apparently Mike is one of several programmed agents. This one lady named Victoria (Connie Britton) wants to save Mike from his eventual execution at the hands of cushy government employee Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). Yates sends in one agent known as Laugher (Walton Goggins), who is called that because he laughs. Yeah, that is really lazy writing right there.
Eventually, it ends up with that scene where the villain has the hero’s girl, and so the hero has to have a massacre to save her. Yeah, this is a by-the-numbers, but there is a great scene where Mike takes on all the bad guys in a retail store, using anything he can pull off the shelves as a weapon. Somehow, that is the American Ultra the film was going for.
The ending where Mike proposes to Phoebe in spite of being surrounded by cops who want to arrest him is also better than it really should be, which is some saving mercy but not enough for me to give the film a positive review.
The ending is one of those like Amazing Spider-Man 2 where it actually starts on a battle. There probably is a word for that kind of ending like there was in the done-to-death beginning of this film.
I’m not certain what American Ultra was trying to do, but it feels like someone wanted to make an ultra-violent version of The Bourne Identity in the same vein of Kingsman: The Secret Service. It’s one of those ideas that you have to try before you realize that it probably isn’t going to work.