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Monday, July 4, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: American Ultra (2015)

Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
Domestic Box Office: $14,440,985

August is a strange month in the movie calendar. It's still technically part of the summer release schedule, but it behaves like the crash following the sugar rush of May, June, and July (and, increasingly, April). Like January and February, two months which traditionally act as the dumping ground following the prestige months leading into awards season, August is a month for misfits. This is not to say that hits don't happen in August, but that because studios tend to use the month to schedule quirky comedies and reboots and action movies that they don't have enough confidence in to put up against the huge tentpole movies that will unfold over the preceding three months, that the hits of August tend to be fewer and smaller in size. August will see one, maybe two, $100 million plus films (you have to go all the way back to 2009 to find an August where there were more than two films that earned more than $100 million), and unlike May, June, and July, where the biggest hit of the month in any given year will end up with somewhere between $200 million and $600 million, it's rare for an August release to crack $200 million. Every once in a while there'll be a release like Guardians of the Galaxy, which will become one of the biggest money makers of the year, but generally August is a month for modest hits. This is a long way of saying that I get why Lionsgate would take a chance on American Ultra, a movie which only cost $28 million to make and so wouldn't have had to bring in all that much to make a profit, and which could have become one of those weird, only-in-August-type hits. But, while the abysmal Let's Be Cops managed to attain that status in 2014, it was not to be for American Ultra, even though it would have been much more deserving.

American Ultra is a love story, of sorts, about a man who wants desperately to be the person he feels is deserving of the woman he loves, but for reasons beyond his control can't push himself to the next level. Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is that man, a stoner who works at a convenience store and wants to propose to his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), but fears that his various phobias - which include his inability to leave their sleepy little town - are holding her back and preventing her from living the life that she deserves. Unbeknownst to Mike, his phobias are rooted in his connection to a secret CIA program which he has been brainwashed into forgetting, and which is about to be burned to the ground by Yates (Topher Grace), a CIA director who wants to get rid of the pet project of his predecessor, Lasseter (Connie Brighton). Unwilling to stand by and let Mike be murdered by the operatives of Yates' own project, named "Tough Guy," Lasseter goes to Mike and "activates" him so that he'll be able to protect himself - though the result is that when people come to kill him, he's able to defend himself and kill them, but is left confused over how, exactly, he was able to do it, and comes to learn that that isn't the only secret that's been kept from him.

It's not really a secret that the CIA has "consultants" in Hollywood whose job it is to offer technical advice on projects in which the CIA factors into the narrative, and to help shape how the CIA is portrayed so that it's a positive depiction. That may seem like an odd point to address when discussing a film where the CIA is depicted as being an institution that is not only given to infighting, but as being brought to a veritable standstill by the cutthroat tactics of the people with the most power, which results in personnel and resources being wasted to settle what might generously be called a pissing match, but what American Ultra is doing is soft propaganda, using that negative portrayal as a diversion for it's backdoor positive portrayal of the CIA. Think about it: Yates is unquestionably the bad guy. He puts a kill order on Mike basically just because he can and uses the operatives that he's created by culling patients from mental institutions and training them to be ruthless killers. He's also willing to kill his departmental rival in order to consolidate his power. He's the face of the CIA for most of the story, but the film ultimately works to show him up as an undeserving pretender.

While Lasseter is out in the field getting her hands dirty and trying to do something that she actually believes in, Yates is portrayed as a coward, someone who literally hides behind other people to use them as a shield when bullets start flying, someone who doesn't have field experience and has only ever been behind a desk and whose power lies not in his skill, but in the toys he has at his disposal and the people that he has under his command. He's not a "real" agent, in the heroic, cinematic tradition, and by having the CIA in the film eventually disavow and punish him, he's effectively separated from the agency. He's a rogue agent whose villainous misdeeds serve to endorse the good intentions of the "good" agent that he's contrasted against. Yates and Lasseter are each responsible for a project which created a special brand of agents, but there are key differences in their two approaches. Yates took people out of mental institutions, who presumably couldn't consent to participating in his project, and who he presumably selected with the notion that their mental health issues would make them easy to control and manipulate. Lasseter recruited people who were facing criminal charges and offered them the opportunity to evade those charges by participating in a secret program. While both groups of recruits were in positions of vulnerability, Lasseter's group at least had the opportunity to decline. Yates doesn't care how the assignments prompt the further mental deterioration of his Tough Guys, while Lasseter's worry over how her project was affecting the mental health of the subjects resulted in her shutting it down, and she remains deeply concerned about Mike and his safety. Although characterized for much of the film as a "failure," Lasseter's project is ultimately positioned as being good and Mike as being a successful trainee, a notion which is supported by the film's happy ending. If the happy ending finds Lasseter reappointed to her former position and Mike working for the CIA, then it follows that the CIA, under its "true" leadership, is good and doing good work. It's not the CIA that's defeated, after all, but the rogue agent who was using the agency to fulfill his own megalomania, so it wasn't ever the agency that was the problem, just that one particular agent.

Written by Max Landis, American Ultra is a mix of comedy and action, with the action occurring in particularly violent and gory fashion as supporting and tertiary characters are mowed down one after another. The bloodbath nature of the action is somewhat at odds with the super laidback humor, which maybe goes some way to explaining why the film (which is actually reasonably entertaining) couldn't find an audience while it was in theaters. Movies that mix genres can be a gamble, particularly if the studio can't find a way to sell them. In American Ultra's case, the studio was Lionsgate, which has found its greatest success in films that essentially sell themselves based on name recognition. Among other things, the studio is responsible for The Hunger Games movies, the Twilight movies, and a whole bunch of Tyler Perry movies, so while it's great at capitalizing on the pre-existing popularity of an entity, it isn't expert at packaging an original product, particularly one as odd as American Ultra. To market the film, the studio wouldn't even have been able to rely on the familiar persona of the star because Eisenberg (who is maybe not a "star" in the sense that he's a household name, but he certainly has a recognizable onscreen persona) plays pretty heavily against type here. Whereas an Eisenberg character is typically hyper-intelligent and smug while also lacking in self-awareness, Mike is endearingly dumb and sweet, a guy who really just wants to make his girlfriend happy. Movies thrive on familiarity, on the idea that if audiences bought something once, they can be persuaded to buy it again, and American Ultra doesn't have that sense of the familiar to fall back on. That the film only managed to make $14 million (and, if you look at its weekly box office take, it had to really limp to even get to that number) makes it unquestionably a failure, yet, at the same time, I'm not sure how a movie this bizarre and this dark could ever have been a money maker. It's its own weird little thing and, failure or not, I sort of admire the studio for at least taking a chance on something different.

Should It Have Been A Blockbuster?: This was never going to be a blockbuster, but it has a lot of potential to become a cult classic.

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