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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: American Ultra

November 23rd, 2015

American Ultra - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray Combo Pack
Video on Demand

American Ultra

American Ultra was released in late August, which is a terrible time of the year to release a movie. Additionally, American Ultra is a Black Comedy, which is one of the hardest genres to pull off. It is very hard to balance the darker elements and the comedy and the tonal shifts that are not perfect will irritate critics. Even black comedies that do earn good reviews rarely connect with moviegoers, because it is a niche market. This film earned mixed reviews and bombed at the box office. Did it deserve better? Will it at least satisfy fans of the genre?

The Movie

We first meet Mike Howell while he's in a police interrogation room chained to the table. It looks like he's had a rough few days, rough as in someone tried to beat him to death. We then hear him tell the story of how this happened. He's a screw-up living in a small town of Liman, West Virginia. The only good thing that has ever happened to him is Phoebe Larson, his girlfriend. He bought a ring and planned to propose to her in Hawaii. However, while at the airport, he has a major panic attack and can't get on the plane. We learn this isn't the first panic attack he's had. In fact, he had another earlier when he tried to drive out of town.

The next day, Mike heads to work. He's a cashier in an out of the way convenience store. There's nobody coming into buy anything. He has the most boring life possible. ... Or maybe not. The film switches to Langley where we meet Victoria Lasseter, who is trying to do her job, despite interference. She gets an anonymous call on a top secret line that one of her assets, Mike Howell, has been targeted for elimination. She immediately confronts Adrian Yates over this. She used to have a program, Wiseman, but she shut it down because it was doing more harm to the assets than it was worth. The only remaining asset was Mike, who was retired to Limen. However, Yates took the program, changed it up a bit, and created the Toughguy Program. Since Mike has tried to leave Liman more than once, Yates has decided he's a security risk and has decided to eliminate him.

Meanwhile, since Mike's Hawaii plan didn't work, he's working on another proposal, but he needs some help from Rose. Rose is usually just his drug dealer, but this time he's buying some fireworks, really illegal fireworks. That night while at work, Victoria pays Mike a visit. She wants to activate him, so that his training will at least give him a shot at defending himself. However, his chronic drug use has rendered his secret training void. He doesn't recognize any of the keywords and remains Mike Howell, cashier. Later, she sees someone messing with his car. It's a couple of Yates' men planting a bomb on his car. As soon as they threaten him, his training kicks in and he's able to take them out rather easily. The details are spoilers.

American Ultra is a Black Comedy that has very violent moments and that's going to be a turn off to most people. Even fans of the genre will find the turns from stoner humor and romance to bloody violence jarring, to put in mildly. I'm not sure if toning down the violence would have made a better movie, or just a watered-down version of this movie. In fact, I'm not even sure making the tonal shifts more even would help, as it is the jarring nature that gives the film its punch. I think the film is what it is and that's that. However, even within this framework, the film has some issues. The action scenes are not as well staged as they would be in more focused action films, while a few of the jokes fall flat. I did really like the acting in the film, both from the stars and the supporting cast. I'm glad I got a chance to see the film, but I'm not sure I will watch it again.

The Extras

Extras begin with an audio commentary track with the director, Nima Nourizadeh. Up next is a two-part, 40-minute making of featurette, which is much longer and more in-depth that I was expecting. The film bombed, so I figured the DVD / Blu-ray would only have a short five-minute puff piece. There is a short four-minute montage of kills, with the price of the objects Mike used. Finally, there are three minutes of outtakes.

I'm going to stop talking about the technical presentation, for the most part. I realized that it has been a long time since I reviewed a Blu-ray that had a technical issue that you could figure out based on the type of movie. Dialogue-driven drama? It looks perfectly fine, but isn't visually flashy. Low-budget indie? It doesn't have the clarity of Hollywood productions. 60-year old films that wasn't given a frame-by-frame remastering? Print damage is visible, but it looks a lot better than the previous DVD release. Usually I only get to say something different if the filmmakers made an aesthetic choice that radically changed how the movie looked. Likewise, there's not much to talk about the audio these days, as it's rare for there to be issues. The most you need to know is if it is a 5.1 or a 7.1 surround sound track. In this case, it is 7.1. So unless there is something important to discuss, I'm not going to mention it.

As for the price, the Blu-ray combo pack is $21, which is 50% more than the DVD. That's a bit much, but not a complete deal breaker, when compared to other similar releases.

The Verdict

If you are a fan of violent black comedies, then American Ultra is worth checking out. That said, despite better than expected extras on the DVD and Blu-ray Combo Pack, it is still just worth a rental.

Filed under: Video Review, American Ultra, Connie Britton, Jesse Eisenberg, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, Kristen Stewart, Nima Nourizadeh