Sunday, January 15, 2017

American Ultra

Year 9, Day 15 - 1/15/17 - Movie #2,515

BEFORE: Kristin Stewart carries over from "Still Alice", and I face a difficult choice after tonight - do I stick with the plan and follow a different thread out of tonight's film?  Because I could have watched "Cafe Society", that new Woody Allen film, which shares two actors with "American Ultra".  It's not on cable yet, but I have limited access to my bosses' Academy screeners, I could probably borrow it if I wanted to, but that doesn't feel sporting, in a way.  Also, I haven't watched the last Woody Allen film, "Irrational Man" yet, and it doesn't feel right to watch the 2016 Woody Allen if I haven't watched his film from 2015, since I watched all his films (that I hadn't seen before) in release order a few years ago, it doesn't feel right to move that one up.

I think it's best to put a hold on "Cafe Society" until I've seen "Irrational Man", and since they share at least one actor (Parker Posey) I can watch them together, in the proper order, later in the year.  Maybe I can lead in to that pair of films with "La La Land", and then lead out with "Now You See Me 2" (also with Jesse Eisenberg) and then use Mark Ruffalo to pick up "Spotlight" and maybe even "Thor: Ragnarok".  There are a lot of things like that to consider as I reduce the size of the list, I'm trying to keep all of my options open. 

THE PLOT: A stoner - who is in fact a government agent - is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he's too well-trained and too high for them to handle.

AFTER: If you take the clueless comic-book artist character Scott Pilgrim (yes, I know that was Michael Cera, not Jesse Eisenberg) and combine him with some of "The Manchurian Candidate", you get Mike Howell from "American Ultra" - that was probably the elevator pitch for this one.  The theory goes, if the stoner dude in the dead-end job is really a secret agent, even if he doesn't know it, then the film will appeal to all the dudes out there working McJobs, because, hey, maybe they're secret agents, too!  

I watched a lot of secret agent films last year, some serious and some comic, and it's true, James Bond is just so far out there with his talents and gadgets, there's just no way the audience can relate sometimes.  So the filmmakers will often take the tack of putting a "normal" person into the spy role, like Melissa McCarthy in "Spy", or by making the central character a total screw-up, like in "The Pink Panther" or "Johnny English".  They're more relatable that way, so the theory goes.  Combine that thought with the trend of having super-smart spies "read" the room for available weaponry - as I saw last year in "The Equalizer", "John Wick", "Kingsman: The Secret Service", and "Batman v Superman", and you realize how much of a formula this really is.  It all goes back to Jason Bourne, I guess.

In addition to feeling like this was written by a marketing committee based on what a focus group wants to see in a spy movie, this film is just too short - or, possibly, not short enough, because it feels like it's all introduction to a larger, probably better story, where the spy character is truly aware of his own abilities.  After being activated by the secret code words (like the Winter Soldier in "Civil War") Mike Howell has all kind of fighting abilities and tricks to draw on, even if he's not sure how he's doing it.  It's some kind of instinct, where his spy training is somehow both there, and not there, and I'm not even sure that's how memory and learning even work - only in the movies, right?

Worse, the film opens with him being questioned after the fact, because apparently a shot of someone sitting in an interrogation room with handcuffs on is SO compelling (umm, it's just not) and we see flashes of all that took place before that, then the story snaps back to introduce the character as a regular guy.  Which completely telegraphs every place that the story is about to go, so why do it like that?  Why not just start with him working in the convenience store as a normal guy, so the audience will be just as surprised as he is, when his abilities come to the surface?   If they started the film "Spider-Man" in the middle of the battle with the Green Goblin, then flashed back to show us Peter Parker getting bitten by the spider, the reveal of his powers wouldn't be so amazing.

The writer of this film was Max Landis, son of John Landis, and he also wrote "Victor Frankenstein" and the BBC series "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency" - the latter of those I enjoyed very much when it ran on BBC America.  It followed a bit of the same pattern, with Elijah Wood as Todd, who gets drawn into this crazy world of police and cults and people with strange powers, even though he doesn't understand it all, and has to trust that everything's going to work out in the end, though there are no guarantees that it will.  Plus there were references that Dirk Gently was a product of some super-secret spy training that focused on his ability to piece information together - sort of a similar idea.  I think this writer has some promise, he just has to learn not to fall into some common narrative traps.

Also starring Jesse Eisenberg (last seen in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"), Topher Grace (last seen in "Interstellar"), Connie Britton (last seen in "This Is Where I Leave You"), Walton Goggins (last seen in "Django Unchained"), John Leguizamo (last seen in "Sisters"), Tony Hale (last seen in "The Heat"), Bill Pullman (last seen in "Lost Highway"), Stuart Greer, Michael Papajohn (last seen in "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"), Monique Ganderton, Nash Edgerton (last seen in "The Equalizer").

RATING: 5 out of 10 panic attacks

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