American Ultra (2015)

(Netflix Streaming, May 2016) I’ll leave the scholarly analysis to others, but it’s possible that the gradual liberalization of drug laws in the US has something to do with the growing number of movies in which stoner aesthetics are blended with other unlikely subgenres. Or maybe it’s just Seth Rogen’s fault. No matter why, here’s now American Ultra, which takes a small-town chronic user and drops him in a Bourne-style action thriller. It’s not an accidental event, considering the protagonist’s repressed memories and other small revelations, but the result is along the lines of “what if a stoner discovered he was an unstoppable killing machine?” Imagine the movie it could have been, then temper your expectations, because American Ultra is a generic treatment of a promising idea, limited by its budget and (more crucially) a lack of willingness to do more than the usual paranoid “government’s coming to kill you” thriller with small-city drug humour … and not that much humour either. Jesse Eisenberg isn’t too bad as the protagonist finding out that his existence is a hazy lie, but Kirsten Stewart doesn’t impress much as his girlfriend. The script has a few issues (many of them having to do with Stewart’s character) but doesn’t try very hard to break out of formulas. Nima Nourizadeh’s direction does have a few flourishes, even though some of them are overplayed such as the flashforward framing device, or the epilogue-as-cheap-animation credit sequence. As with a surprising number of stoner movies that try to blend themselves in more serious genre, American Ultra’s level of violence seems grotesquely excessive, as if it hadn’t earned the right to showing that much gore in what should be a far more amiable context. It wouldn’t be so bothersome if it wasn’t for the cheap use of anti-government clichés such as assassin squads—not to spend too much time on my soapbox, but it’s trashy thrillers like American Ultra that normalize the idea of a government willing to kill its citizen, and I’m finding less and less to like about that. It’s also in the service of so little: no inspiring message about taking back government, more effective checks and balances or new roles in a digital surveillance age—just dumb drug jokes, a modern “forgotten prince” fantasy trope and bloodshed for all. Alas, American Ultra only amounts to something you’d watch late at night and forget about by the next morning.

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