Saturday, August 22, 2015

"American Ultra": enigma-type situation for rural loner turns into action rather than mystery

The thriller film “American Ultra” (2015, by Nima Nourzadeh) opens with the protagonist-hero, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) having been dragged into interrogation, with apparently little idea of how he got there.
That kind of introduction seems appropriate for some kind of existential mystery (like in Craig Monahan’s  Aussie mystery “The Interview” (1998)) and invites a Hitchcock-like experience.  I’m doing that with my own screenplay “Do Ask, Do Tell: Epiphany” (which used to be called “Conscripted”).  But then, the entire 97-minute action movie is a prequel or backstory to this scene (which will be followed by a nice epilogue in a ritzy Asian city and a little animated short film during the closing credits based on Mike’s notebook of comic book horror characters, right out of Clive Barker). 
In fact, as the main story line precedes, Mike works in a convenience store in a West Virginia mountain hamlet, probably beyond the reach of Verizon.  Mike has been drifting into the life of a stoner (John Leguizamo is the dealer), not ambitious enough to try to see his comic book talents, but his girl friend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is supportive anyway. At first, the role seems out of character for geeky Eisenberg (playing characters like Mark Zuckerberg and David Lipsky), who in real life writes plays and loves cats; as the movie progresses, Eisenberg’s own personality starts to re-emerge.
 The town may have been conveniently forgotten because of nearby mountaintop removal associated with coal strip mining. The US government, especially the CIA, seems to think the whole town is expendable.  The film pays little heed to the idea that the CIA is not supposed to conduct domestic operations.  (The outdoor scenes were actually filmed in upstate New York and Louisiana.)
That’s one problem, as soon the film jumps to Langley (not well reproduced) where Topher Grace is unconvincing as Adrian Yates, in charge of neutralizing Ultra-agents who have gone bad.  Bill Pullman is hardly his old self (“Independence Day”, “Lost Highway”) when he plays Krueger.
Then one day an “angel” (Connie Britton) comes into the store and speaks some code words (they escape me now) that are supposed to activate Michael into overreaction (as if her were some kind of Manchurian Candidate). But then, Michael shortly dispatches two agents in the parking lot as if he were James Bond.
What follows is not mystery, but almost non-stop action. As I’ve noted, this could well have been a different kind of film.  But the action is clever enough.  At one point, Michael fires a round at a skillet in the air, and the ricochet tears through an attacker’s heart perfectly.
The deepest back-story suggests that the US government looks for mentally disturbed young adults, sequesters them and trains them to become ops, but has to eliminate them if they go bad. It reminds me of the “research project” at NIH in the fall of 1962 after my own William and Mary expulsion. I, as a “god damn MP”, was the only patient who knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis while it unfolded, since I was allowed off the hospital to go to GWU at night.
The official site is here  (Lionsgate). The film is shot in regular 1.85:1, when it would seem to call for the full anamorphic, but the director may be expecting most viewers to see the film through streaming.  I saw the film in a large auditorium (small afternoon audience) at Regal Ballston Common, set up so that only anamorphic uses the full curved screen.

Pictures: My trip to area near Kayford Mountain, W Va, late July 2012.


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