Sunday, November 26, 2017

American Ultra (2015)

Max Landis.  That’s a name that strikes hatred into the hearts of many an online movie fan.  Just the name gets people’s blood boiling.  His outspoken manner on Twitter has been offensive, off-putting, and uninformed in many cases, which puts him against the hive mind of the movie circles on Twitter.  I’m not saying he’s right.  I’m not saying he’s wrong.  I’m just saying that he’s a divisive person on the internet, and his movies (Chronicle aside) have been disliked because of it.

American Ultra was one of the many movies after the critical downfall of Max Landis.  It came out in 2015, three years after he became a big name with Chronicle.  Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) was a stoner getting ready to propose to his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).  Little did he know that he was also an asset for the government whose mind was wiped so that he would forget his training.  When Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) decided to kill him, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) made it her mission to activate him and give him a chance to survive.  That’s the story.

There were five main action sequences in American Ultra that told the majority of the story.  Everything in the downtime was only necessary to give moments to breathe because the action could be overwhelming.  It would be tough to have an entire movie be action.  There needs to be the lower intensity moments to let the audience readjust themselves before getting back into the thick of things.  If every scene were action, the entire movie would feel the same.  That would lead to monotony and boredom.

As much flack as Max Landis gets, he was able to propel the story forward through the action in a deeper way than simply injuring people.  There was a deeper meaning to each of the action sequences that helped to move the character arcs.  As much as the action felt like a personification of what everyone dislikes about Landis, I can give him credit for making the scenes have meaning.  They were more than action for action’s sake.

There are going to be spoilers ahead as I take a look at each of the five action sequences and analyze the work that Max Landis did in his writing.  Nima Nourizadeh may have had some input, since he was the director, but everything felt Max Landis.  His influence went through the parking lot, police station, basement, house, and Max Goods (damn you, Landis, for naming the store after yourself like the cocky son of a bitch that you are) action scenes.  So, whenever I mention what went into the story, I’ll be pointing at Max Landis and giving him the credit.
The Parking Lot
The importance of the first action scene in American Ultra was to set up what would be happening throughout the movie.  It introduced Mike’s abilities as a fighter, much to his surprise.  It was the beginning of the movie.  He had to determine where the skills came from and learn to cope with being a killing machine.

Mike walked out of the convenience store where he worked to see two men attaching something to his car.  When he told them to leave his vehicle alone, they stepped up and attempted to attack.  Mike used his hot soup and spoon to subdue his attackers.  He then immediately called Phoebe in a state of shock.

This fight scene set the whole story in motion.  Mike, up to that point, had been a regular, everyday stoner.  He strolled through life without a care in the world.  The fight changed him.  He was triggered into a survival mode that he never knew he had.  It was the fight that changed his whole world view and sent the character on a wild ride to find himself.
The Police Station
Yates had been introduced earlier in American Ultra as the man behind the plan to kill Mike.  He was the one that put the mission in motion.  But he would never go head to head with Mike.  At no point would the two characters throw fists at one another.  Yates would simply send asset after asset to kill Mike, all to no avail.  One of those assets had to be the main antagonist for Mike, the character that Mike would have to go up against time and time again.

The police station set piece would introduce that character.  Mike and Phoebe were taken into custody following the parking lot scene because, well, dead bodies will do that.  Yates sent two assets in to kill Mike.  One of them was Laugher (Walton Goggins).  He was a mentally handicapped man being forced into a government job as an assassin.  He could, seemingly, attack and kill without any remorse, all the while laughing about the deeds he did.

The other asset didn’t matter too much as she was only in the one scene.  She got killed at the end of the fighting.  Laugher, however, would reappear throughout the movie.  He played a significant role in the final fight, specifically, and was a big part of getting characters from one place to another.

As for the action in the scene, it set up the dynamic between Mike and Laugher as two rivals in this mission.  Laugher walked into the cell where Mike and Phoebe were being held and opened fire, killing a police officer.  Mike fought him off, knocking out his front teeth.  It was an intense, close-quarter battle in a jail cell meant to show that these two men were almost equals.  Either of them could have gotten the upper hand.
The Basement
Trying to find a safe place to get away from Yates and his assets, Mike and Phoebe holed up in the house of Mike’s drug dealer, Rose (John Leguizamo).  After some news reports said that Mike might have some sort of monkey disease, Rose banished them to the basement.  The assets knew they were there, though, and began an attack.  They pumped a toxic gas into the basement, and sent a man into the house with a gas mask and a shotgun.  Rose and his friends were killed.  Mike killed the assets, though.

The point of this fight was to show Mike’s mortality, as well as showing that Phoebe knew more than she was letting on.  Mike was almost killed by the gas.  He went into a mini coma where he was on death’s door.  He saw the light at the end of the tunnel.  His life flashed before him.  But he had something worth fighting for.  He had Phoebe.  As for Phoebe, she knew how to save Mike and what Mike needed to do to survive.  He confronted her at the end of the action sequence and demanded she tell him how she knew.  She was an agent assigned to him as a handler.  The argument that ensued would lead to the next major action scene through a series of events involving Laugher moving people around.

This was probably the least exciting of the action scenes in American Ultra.  It was mostly just Mike beating a guy with weights while in a blacklit basement.  The importance was in the reveal of Phoebe’s past as a handler, and her trying to tell Mike that she really did love him and that part wasn’t fake.  The action scene led to that pivotal moment.  It was moving the story forward, as Max Landis has managed to do with each action scene so far.  The movie isn’t action for action’s sake.  Every piece of action is an important story element, revealing character and turning things on their head.
The House
After finding out that Phoebe was his handler, Mike got mad at her.  They ended up going their separate ways, thanks to Laugher, and Mike ended up pairing with Lasseter.  Together, they went to Mike’s house where a fight broke out against some of the military that Yates had brought to the town. 

This fight paired Mike and Lasseter together and led Mike to the final battle of the movie.  Lasseter stayed by Mike’s side, even though he had made the dumb decision to return home.  That was the main place that Yates would be looking for him.  The fact that Lasseter stuck with him showed her loyalty.  It also led credence to her pleas that Phoebe had actually fallen in love with Mike while working as his handler.  Mike knew all of the secrets at this point.  Now he knew that the love was real, all because Lasseter stuck by him in this action sequence.
Max Goods
Max Landis saved the best action scene for last.  Some of it surely had to be credited to the director and cinematographer, but without Landis’s writing, it wouldn’t have landed as well as it did.  Mike did everything for love.  He killed numerous assets because he loved Phoebe and wanted her back.  Yates was holding her hostage in Max Goods, and Mike would stop at nothing to free her.  Correction, he would stop at Laugher.  He took out a lot of bad guys, though, and it allowed Phoebe to free herself and beat on Yates.

The scene began with Mike driving through the parking lot in a military vehicle, firing off fireworks in every direction.  He crashed into the front of the Max Goods store where Yates had taken Phoebe and his remaining assets.  Mike charged through the aisles, taking down the enemy assets with anything he could find on the shelves.  It wasn’t a single, extended shot, but it was still a fluid action scene.  It moved through the store as though an extended shot.  The final confrontation was between Mike and Laugher.

The two assets, Mike from the Ultra project and Laugher from the Tough Guy program, went all out in a fairly even fight.  It ended with Mike holding a gun to Laugher, ready to pull the trigger.  Laugher told Mike that it must feel good to be free to make his own decisions.  In that moment, Mike knew that Laugher had no say in what he was doing, and instead of killing him, he let laugher go free.  It was a big moment for Mike, realizing that he had the power over his skills to control them.  He could stop his killing ways if someone didn’t deserve death.
Mike’s story in American Ultra could have been told through the action scenes.  It would have felt a little choppy because the other scenes in the movie helped to build out the characters and physically move them from location to location.  The Yates stuff wouldn’t have been there without the non-action sequences.  Still, the action scenes were a big part in psychologically moving the character from where he was at the beginning to where he would be at the end.  Every action scene had a purpose outside of spectacle, and that’s where Max Landis went right with his writing.

American Ultra wasn’t the greatest movie.  At points, it’s too obnoxious for its own good.  The cast brought it beyond what was written.  Though the action scenes were good and the character motivations were good, their personalities were sometimes grating.  It’s a double edged sword when it comes to Max Landis.  He knows how to write.  That’s for sure.  Sometimes he gets a little too full of himself, and that’s where American Ultra tends to fall flat.  It’s an okay movie, but not something I’d want to watch over and over again.
Last but not least, here are some notes:

  • American Ultra was suggested by friend of the blog, @thenickisaac.  He previously suggested D.E.B.S., Drop Zone, Mom and Dad Save the World, and Remote Control.
  • As you may have seen, John Leguizamo was in American Ultra.  He was also in The Happening, and the movie I will be rewatching for next week’s post, Super Mario Bros.
  • Another actor that made their third Sunday “Bad” Movies appearance in American Ultra was John L. Armijo.  He was in Freelancers and Fant4stic.
  • To finish off the three-timers, there was an actor named Jesse Yarborough, who was in Fant4stic and God’s Not Dead before being featured in American Ultra.
  • Nine actors made their second appearance in the Sunday “Bad” Movies with American Ultra, after being in Fant4stic.  They were Nicolas Bosc, Kyle Crosby, Christopher Heskey, Garrett Hollingsworth, Tamika Shanell Johnson, Patrick Kearns, Mike R. Moreau, Wayne Pere, and Don Yesso.
  • Douglas Wilcox II made his return to the Sunday “Bad” Movies this week.  He hadn’t been in one of the movies since way back when I covered Freelancers.
  • American Ultra was the second appearance of Deidra Sarego, who had previously shown up in Torque.
  • Matthew R. Staley had a role in American Ultra.  He also had a role in Winter’s Tale.
  • American Ultra saw the Sunday “Bad” Movies return of Alvin Chon, who was in Tracers.
  • Up the Academy was the first appearance of Megyn Shott in the Sunday “Bad” Movies.  American Ultra was the second.
  • Topher Grace is a face you might recognize.  He played Yates in American Ultra.  He was in Valentine’s Day, a movie I covered a couple years ago.
  • Two actors from American Ultra had already appeared in the Sunday “Bad” Movies in Road House 2: Last Call.  They were Trace Cheramie and Stuart Greer.
  • Finally, Michael Papajohn returned to the Sunday “Bad” Movies with American Ultra after recently (beginning of September) appearing in Jonah Hex.
  • Have you seen American Ultra? What do you think of Max Landis?  Let me know in the comments.
  • The comments are a good place to leave suggestions for movies that I should watch in the future.  There or on Twitter.  I’m always looking for suggestions about what I should be checking out for the blog.  Let me know.
  • Sometimes when I watch bad movies, I’ll put clips of them in my snapchat story.  If you add me (jurassicgriffin), you might get to see some of that magic.
  • I already tipped my hat earlier in the notes about what’s coming up next week.  It will be the five year anniversary of the Sunday “Bad” Movies, so I will be rewatching one of the movies from the fifth year of the blog.  That movie is Super Mario Bros.  It was voted by the fine people who follow my Twitter accounts as the movie to rewatch.  Come back in a week and I’ll have a post for it.  Or come back sooner, because I’ll have some other posts that I’m going to get up.

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