Review: ‘American Ultra,’ ‘Hitman’: Bodies everywhere
It’s a telling reflection of the state of original thinking in Hollywood when two movies debut on the same day using the exact same premise as their essential hook.
In “American Ultra,” a man awakens to the fact that he is a highly efficient killing machine.
In “Hitman: Agent 47,” a woman awakens to the fact that she is a highly efficient killing machine.
You get the feeling that a lot of people in the movie business are hoping to wake up one day and discover they, too, are highly efficient killing machines, instead of some schlub having egg whites on a bagel.
Aside from the highly efficient killing machine premise, the two films also boast complicated conspiracies and each contains a boatload of dead bodies. Again, so much for originality.
Happily, there are differences between the two. “American Ultra” carries the sheen of a romantic stoner comedy (nothing funnier than seeing a guy get killed with a spoon) while “Hitman,” based on a video game, goes for a more sci-fi Bond type of vibe.
“American Ultra” also features the not inconsiderable talents and chemistry of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, while “Hitman” relies on the lesser-known but perfectly adequate Rupert Friend (“Homeland”) and Hannah Ware. Both films are rated R, one runs 95 minutes, the other 96, and each boasts big-tussle high-quality villains as well — the incomparable Walton Goggins in “American Ultra” and Zachary Quinto in “Hitman.”
Actually, it’s unclear for a while who the villain is in “Hitman.” We find out early that the titular Agent 47 (Friend) has been genetically bred and trained to be an assassin and he’s very good at his job. He’s part of a program that was discontinued when a geneticist ran off with his young daughter, taking the secrets to making hitmen with him.
Fifteen years later, the daughter (Ware), Agent 47 and a nasty international corporation that wants to make more hitmen are all looking for the geneticist (Ciarin Hinds). A fellow named John Smith (Quinto) suddenly appears alongside the daughter, warning her 47 is coming to get her. After much gunplay and hysterics, he whisks her off to safety. Until 47 shows up again, and it turns out he just wants to release her inner hitwoman.
This is all followed by gunplay, gunplay and more gunplay, all handled in glossy tones by first-time director Aleksander Bach. As such films go, it’s efficiently done juvenilia.
“American Ultra” is obviously aiming a bit higher, while still embracing low-brow silliness. Mike (Eisenberg) works at a convenience store in a small town, where he lives with his beautiful punkish girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart), the both of them in a consistent bong haze.
Then one night two thugs try to kill Mike in the store’s empty parking lot, whereupon, to his own great surprise, he kills them both with a cup of ramen soup and a spoon. What is happening? He calls Phoebe, they go on the run and it’s revealed that Mike was the only successful product of a CIA experiment to transform wayward youths into super killers.
Now a CIA honcho has turned a squadron of repurposed madmen, led by a loony called Laugher (Goggins), loose on Mike. Can he survive? Hint: He killed a guy with a cup of soup.
Like the pros they are, Eisenberg and Stewart bring a refreshing amount of sincerity to the bloody antics and “Project X” director Nima Nourizadeh handles the literal fireworks with a sense of glee. You never fully buy “American Ultra” — you’re not supposed to — but it’s a decent ride with some nice turns.
If only the ride didn’t feel so familiar.
‘Hitman: Agent 47’
Rated R for sequences of strong violence, and some language
Running time: 96 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Running time: 95 minutes