Too high to handle
Dir: Nima Nourizadeh
PalmStar media, USA, 2015
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman
Prefixing your title with ‘American’ often implies some level of insight into this diverse national identity. American Psycho (2000) explored the greed and cynicism of the yuppie generation and the capitalist system, whilst American History X (1998) examined the rampant culture of racism. Likewise in literature, the prose of Phillip Roth in American Pastoral is a raging indictment of the American dream, and in art American Gothic depicts the charms and aesthetics of a long disappeared way of American life. Though not nearly as vital, essential or groundbreaking as any of these relics of heritage, American Ultra (2015), intentionally or not, provides us with an insight into the prevalence and proliferation of violence throughout contemporary American mainstream cinema.
Since the early stages of its marketing campaign, American Ultra has been repeatedly sold as a ‘stoner comedy’ as opposed to the hyperviolent action thriller it actually is. The tagline “There’s nothing more dangerous than a stoned cold killer” was plastered on to the sides of buses and every article and promotion made sure to mention that the protagonist is a stoner. The poster suggested something more mellow and easygoing in the vein of Pineapple Express and The Wackness (both 2008) but by the end of the film Jesse Eisenberg’s sleeper agent Howell has smoked precisely two joints, made reference to getting high only once and the only thing left to suggest his habit is his republican baiting shoulder length hair.
What makes American Ultra the misguided and incomplete film it is, is its inability to decide on a consistent spirit to channel. Nima Nourizadeh’s film is one that cycles rapidly through numerous genres – swapping the gentle chill of its introduction for doomed tragic romance before transitioning into a hulking action thriller and ending on a note of espionage. The aforementioned opening is the most interesting section by far, a tranquil portrayal of boredom in rural America, a town situated deep in the rolling fog that cascades down the green mountain towering over Howell’s workplace. During this opening I suspected that, despite its marketing strategy and seemingly middlebrow approach, it might have something interesting to say about small town mentality or the idea of being adrift in a sea of banality. Soon enough however, this atmosphere is discarded entirely. Clumsily cast aside to accommodate the caustic hostility of its adrenaline pumping ambitions, an independent DIY aesthetic replaced by blockbuster sheen and technical proficiency, losing its sense of originality and intelligence.
There are undeniable moments of brilliance in the otherwise scattershot hour and a half however, the kinetic one shot firefight through a supermarket towards the films climax stands out specifically, a budget guzzling set piece that demonstrates a level of inventiveness not often seen in mainstream action. Akin to this quality, but residing at the opposite end of the spectrum, is the gentle and optimistic romance between Eisenberg and an unexpectedly expressive Kristen Stewart, finally shaking off the undeserved miserable typecast and becoming the emotional core of an otherwise mechanical cast.
Topher Grace however, is the champion of American Ultra, stealing every scene he appears in with set-chewing, malevolent glee. As the young CIA operation leader, tasked with bringing the almost super-powered Howell down, Grace channels every over the top action villain from the most audacious and brash thrillers of the past. In a film that mishandles the synergy between fun and sober, Grace is the lone figure able to achieve this, encapsulating a tone that alternates between acidic and playful that the film really should be attempting to imitate.
There are certainly relics of a strong alternative comedy script buried beneath the violence and anger. There is a nagging sense throughout that much of the exaggerated brutality may have been a result of studio tampering, but perhaps this was the intended mantra of the film long before the studio system was even involved. If not intended as a stoner comedy then American Ultra is a failed exercise in bringing together two divergent tones, and instead of the two ideas being brought together they have been driven apart to reside at the very ends of their respective spectrums – the violence is extreme and the comedy suited only to a narrative that sees its characters sat in a loft eating endless Pringles and watching seven consecutive episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix.
American Ultra falls far below the lofty heights of other aforementioned titles prefaced with ‘America’, closer to American Pie than Pastoral, but, as I mentioned, it does give us a strong insight into the attitudes towards violence and firearms currently prevalent within the United States. There is little sympathy in the film for its characters, good or bad, which die riddled with bullets; they become simply another statistic and victim regardless of their intentions or goals, whilst the gleeful and joyous hail of gunfire rings out as the film progresses through introspection and mindlessness. The paradise lost of American Ultra’s opening twenty minutes becomes something to mourn, a long disappeared way of life that I wished to return to, to inhabit the idyllic gas station in the shadow of the fog smothered mountain as opposed to the destruction and hostility of its climax… so perhaps, in this sense, American Ultra thoroughly deserves its prefix.
- Kristofer Thomas