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American Ultra

Lionsgate Home Entertainment // R // November 24, 2015
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Ryan Keefer | posted November 29, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

The cinematic retelling of a spy whose origin story is less than conventional has been told and retold several different ways. A personal favorite is Mr. & Mrs. Smith. With American Ultra, we see another entry into the mix, and the initial results at least were promising, if the film's trailer was to be believed.

Written by Max Landis (Victor Frankenstein) and directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X), the Ultra in question is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg, 30 Minutes or Less). Mike lives in West Virginia with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, Still Alice), who he hopes to propose to, smokes a lot of weed, and has this weird, almost physical fear of leaving the small West Virginia town where he and Phoebe live. When a mysterious customer comes into the convenience store where he works and repeats a cryptic phrase, it triggers something in Mike where he becomes a ass kicking killer, but he also learns forces he is unaware of are trying to kill him.

The premise of the film was interesting if not treading on a lot of already familiar ground to film fans. And the casting of Connie Britton (Me & Earl & The Dying Girl), Topher Grace (Interstellar) and Tony Hale (Veep) as agents within the CIA makes for interesting viewing, just as Walton Goggins (Justified), who plays one of those dispatched to kill Mike. Each has their moments, each owns their character as much as the character is given the chance to dictate a scene or subplot.

But for the promise of the cast, American Ultra seems to spend as much, if not more, time trying to show us why Grace is the film's protagonist, and does not spend nearly as much time with the emotional conflict Mike is trying to resolve about being this Sydney Bristow-type badass who happens to smoke a pantload of weed. Eisenberg conveys innocence and/orvulnerability well in most of the characters he portrays, so to see this passed over in American Ultra for a more ingenious person that kicks ass well would seem to gloss over the thing that would make the film appealing. When you consider similar films try to capture the conflicted everyman now spy with its protagonists in whatever way possible, the decision to squander this is confusing.

I wanted to like American Ultra for the jump. I thought there was enough charisma in the ensemble for a bunch of laughs (and John Leguizamo as Mike's drug dealing friend may even need to be its own prequel of sorts), but either Landis' story or Nourizadeh's direction, while having a fair amount of flash, lack things in substance that hurt it beyond the immediate. These deficiencies have ramfications for the rest of the film, regardless of whatever twists that are thrown into it. The initial merits just aren't enough to ignore these problems, and you're left kicking the ground yet again at a film that could have been good to very good, but came within sniffing distance of neither.

The Blu-ray:
The Video:

American Ultra is given an AVC-encoded 1.85:1 widescreen transfer, with the results being mildly disappointing for a recent release. The film does get opportunities to be vibrant such as a scene in Rose's place that uses blacklight, or in the fight sequence that show the colors in a big box retailer. But most of the film occurs in darker moments, and the night shots aren't as black or inky as they perhaps should. Image detail fluctuates as well, such as a shot with Grace and Britton in the third act during a rainstorm, but tighter shots look nice.

The Sound:

The DTS:X soundtrack output to a DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack for me, but that's fine either way, because the sound brings the ruckus from the early moments. Mike's flashbacks are fully represented in each channel, along with the firefights as bullets whiz by and around the viewer. Dialogue is quieter moments is effective and firmly placed in the front of the theater, and dynamic range is broad and the soundtrack shows off whenever and however it can. Excellent work by Lionsgate here.


Nourizadeh contributes a commentary to the film that does not include much in the way of informative or entertaining tidibits. Mostly narrating the action with production recall thrown in whenever it comes up, and puts some scene breakdown in there as well. But the commentary is nothing special. A two-part look at the film titled "Activating American Ultra" (40:22) was promising at first, but spends too much time on the cast's thoughts on Landis' story, and requisite thoughts on one another and the director, but little time on the production itself. "Assassinating on a Budget" (3:25) looks at the common items used in the killings, a not that funny gag reel (2:42) follows, along with a standard definition disc and digital copy.

Final Thoughts:

While American Ultra is nice in idea, the execution falls short in places where it could have been served by the assets of its cast. It's almost as if the initial apathy of its main character were magically transferred to the viewer as soon as the former became a badass. Technically, the transfer is disappointing but the soundtrack is great, and while the supplements are kind of ample, they are unsatisfying, like the film itself. Definitely worth a rental, but not that much more.

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