American Ultra (2015)

2016 #119
Nima Nourizadeh | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA & Switzerland / English & Mandarin | 15 / R

American UltraStoner comedies aren’t really my thing, but something about American Ultra — which is often pithily described as “Pineapple Express meets The Bourne Identity” — piqued my interest nonetheless. Partly it’s that Bourne comparison, obviously; partly it’s Jesse Eisenberg choosing to lead an action movie at this point in his career; mostly it’s the reception the film received: critics largely slagged it off, and audiences too, but there’s a noteworthy strand of people who enjoyed it. Sometimes the films with the niche fan base are the best films, and sometimes they’re the worst films. American Ultra is neither, merely settling somewhere between the two.

Max Landis’ wish-fulfilment screenplay (by which I mean Max Landis’ screenplay is about fulfilling Max Landis’ wishes) sees Jesse Eisenberg as a laggard stoner who turns out to be a CIA sleeper agent with Bourne-esque abilities, which are revealed when the director of a rival CIA programme (Topher Grace) sets out to kill him and anyone who stands in their way, including girlfriend Kristen Stewart.

Those aforementioned fans praise it for being original and different, but I don’t see where they got that from — it’s a Bourne clone with added comedy. And by comedy I don’t even Duuudereally mean it’s funny (there are two or three laughs, tops), just that it has a less serious tone. Even if you want to claim the Bourne similarities are just one facet, the film as a whole feels generally reminiscent of any number of low/medium-budget action flicks. It’s not bad, it passes the time, but original or exceptional? No.

3 out of 5

Now You See Me (2013)

2015 #79
Louis Leterrier | 115 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & France / English | 12 / PG-13

Louis Leterrier, helmer of the Clash of the Titans remake everyone would rather forget and the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie everyone does forget, directs this magic-inspired thriller — a film all about misdirection that pretty successfully pulls off one of its own.

Four low-key magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious, unseen other to stage a massive Las Vegas show, in which they teleport an audience member to a bank in Paris and rob it. But they didn’t, of course, because magic isn’t real. Or did they? So begins a cat-and-mouse tale, as the FBI (represented by Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol (represented by Mélanie Laurent) chase their ever-mounting criminal campaign, followed by a magic debunker (Morgan Freeman) and big-money investor (Michael Caine).

Really, the whole film works on many of the same principles as a magic show: it’s there to dazzle you, confound you, make you guess how the tricks were done. That there’s eventually a reveal and a twist is an end unto itself, regardless of the believability of the plot or the depth of the characters (neither of which you get in most magic shows, of course). Personally, I love magic, and I love finding out the truth behind it, so both of those boxes were ticked for me. OK, this isn’t real magic, a fact only emphasised by an over-reliance on CGI at times; but it plays by enough of the right rules to work for most of its running time.

That seems to have made it pretty divisive, however. Reading online comments, it’s a real love-it-or-hate-it movie, in quite a literal sense — some people properly despise it. Their criticisms aren’t wholly unfounded: the characters are thin; at times it’s unclear which side we’re meant to be following or most invested in; the use of CGI in the magic somewhat undermines it; a good deal of the plot stretches credibility. Conversely, the credibility is questionable from very early on, so the counterargument goes that it’s the whole MO of the film — you don’t complain about Iron Man not being possible in real life, do you?

The biggest flaw is perhaps that of the characters and the issue of whose side we’re meant to be on: at times it seems like we’re meant to consider the magicians the good guys; at others, the agents chasing them. Does the film want to have it both ways? It can’t, either because that’s never possible or because Leterrier and co aren’t up to pulling it off. Nonetheless, there’s not enough time invested in any of the characters. When at the end one of the magicians comments that they’ve “had an incredible year together”, we just have to take them at their word because we’ve not seen any of it, not even a montage. That preserves the film’s mysteries, but when every character is hiding something — or if they’re not, we need to suspect they might be — it’s hard to relate to any of them. For me this isn’t a huge issue — I can live without likeable or engaging characters when the film has other stuff going on — but I know it’s a deal-breaker for some.

If nothing else, the film is slickly made, the camerawork and editing swish and flashy in a good way. Again, some people don’t approve of this aspect, but I don’t quite understand people who criticise it. I don’t mean people who criticise the film for just being those things, people who want it to offer more in terms of character or plot because they think it’s lacking — that’s a fair enough accusation. But why is a slick/swish/flashy style inherently bad in and of itself? Such a style certainly fits the magic world. I guess it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

Ultimately, Now You See Me is no more than an entertaining thrill ride; the kind of film that races breathlessly ahead so as you don’t have time to think too deeply about its mysteries, or its plot holes. Clearly it’s an experience you have to get on board with or you’ll loathe it, but, personally, I was entertained and thrilled.

4 out of 5

Jesse Eisenberg’s new movie, American Ultra, is flopping in the US now and out in UK cinemas from September 4th.