High ac­tion leav­ened by a dose of wit

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews - Stephen Romei

Amer­i­can Ul­tra be­longs to a cin­e­matic sub­genre that sounds like an oxy­moron: the stoner ac­tion film. Chronic mar­i­juana smok­ing and rapid move­ment do not typ­i­cally go hand in hand, and of course that pro­vides much of the hu­mour in such films, from the Judd Apa­tow­pro­duced 2008 hit Pineap­ple Ex­press right back to the reck­less daze of Cheech and Chong.

“We were the per­fect f..ked-up cou­ple,’’ Mike How­ell (Jesse Eisen­berg) tells us early on as he shares a joint with his beau­ti­ful girl­friend Phoebe Lar­son (Kris­ten Stewart from the Twi­light films). “She was per­fect and I was the f..k-up.’’

Mike and Phoebe live in small-town West Vir­ginia. It’s op­pres­sive but they can’t es­cape be­cause of his panic at­tacks. He works in a con­ve­nience store and she keeps their lives to­gether. Eisen­berg, mem­o­rable in The So­cial Net­work, is the anti-Mark Zucker­berg here: long stringy hair, flan­nel shirts, ner­vous and apolo­getic. But none of this is real, in a sense, and this is the clever idea be­hind Amer­i­can Ul­tra, writ­ten by young Amer­i­can screen­writer Max Lan­dis (the sci-fi thriller Chron­i­cle) and di­rected by Ira­nian-Bri­tish film­maker Nima Nour­izadeh, who had a box-of­fice suc­cess with his 2012 de­but com­edy Pro­ject X.

Mike, it turns out, is the last sur­vivor of a de­funct CIA pro­gram to cre­ate su­per agents (shades of Hitman: Agent 47, re­viewed here re­cently). When the out-of-favour CIA agent who cre­ated the pro­gram (Con­nie Brit­ton) learns her gung-ho re­place­ment (To­pher Grace) has or­dered Mike elim­i­nated, she de­cides to save him by ac­ti­vat­ing his ul­tra pro­gram­ming.

The ef­fec­tive­ness of this is soon on show when Mike, armed with a spoon, dis­patches two would-be as­sas­sins. Such lethal use of con­sumer items, from dust­pans to frozen ham­burger pat­ties, is a run­ning gag through­out. I like the fact that Mike doesn’t sud­denly strip to a tight sin­glet to re­veal pumped bi­ceps: he re­mains a doo­fus, al­beit a deadly one.

Yet for a while we won­der, via Phoebe, whether Mike is in fact an ul­tra agent marked for death or if it’s just the pot mak­ing him para- noid. This is clev­erly done, with Eisen­berg con­vinc­ing as a young man who doesn’t trust his own mind. In another droll twist, his hun­ters, drawn from another CIA pro­gram, are all for­mer men­tal home pa­tients. The vi­o­lence is quite graphic, as the MA15+ rat­ing sug­gests, but it is leav­ened by the wit. Amer­i­can Ul­tra takes a good idea and runs with it for a long way. The Trans­porter Re­fu­elled takes an old idea and drives it hard and fast. In­deed while English rap­per and ac­tor Ed Skrein has top billing, it’s the cars that star. Which re­minds me to ask, just when did Audi cor­ner the Hol­ly­wood mar­ket? It seems the he­roes and/or vil­lains of al­most ev­ery new ac­tion-ad­ven­ture favour that par­tic­u­lar Bavar­ian au­tomaker. It is with re­lief that I read James Bond sticks with the As­ton Martin in the loom­ing Spec­tre.

Any­way, this is a re­boot of The Trans­porter fran­chise, the suc­cess­ful French ac­tion se­ries pro­duced and co-writ­ten by Luc Bes­son and star­ring Jason Statham as Frank Martin, a free­lance courier driver who will de­liver any­thing any­where with no ques­tions asked — for the right price. Bes­son still has his hands on the wheel but there is a new cast and a new di­rec­tor in Camille De­la­marre (the first two films were di­rected by Louis Leter­rier, the third by Olivier Mega­ton). This is not a con­tin­u­a­tion of the story but a re­con­fig­u­ra­tion that in­tro­duces us to the younger Frank (Skrein).

We first meet him in the sort of set-piece I find par­tic­u­larly sat­is­fy­ing: six hoods con­front Frank in an un­der­ground carpark and de­mand the keys to his Audi. He looks more like a Calvin Klein model than like, well, Statham, but he takes them out with­out creas­ing his suit or scratch­ing his Omega watch.

From there we are quickly into a high-oc­tane es­capade in­volv­ing an in­ter­na­tional pros­ti­tu­tion ring, de­ranged Rus­sian mob­sters and lots of car chases, some of which are spec­tac­u­lar. Frank’s rogu­ish dad, Frank Sr (Ir­ish ac­tor Ray Steven­son), joins the fray and it soon turns out he is not just an Evian sales­man. (Yes, the prod­uct place­ment is laid on a bit thick.)

It’s all a bit silly but doesn’t take it­self too se­ri­ously. I’m fairly sure Frank at one point takes the mickey out of Ethan Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble Hunt’s high-hands run­ning style, which I’m sur­prised Tom Cruise hasn’t trade­marked. If your brain has been in over­drive all week, this could be a nice Fri­day night change of gear.

Jesse Eisen­berg and Kris­ten Stewart in

Amer­i­can Ul­tra, left; and Ed Skrein in The Trans­porter Re­fu­elled

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