High action leavened by a dose of wit
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