One would probably be mistaken to put the apparently unstoppable ascent of Max Landis down to Hollywood nepotism. After all, it isn’t as if anyone has been battering down his dad’s door offering him work over the past couple of decades. I suspect the truth is closer to the means by which Seth Grahame-Smith established himself, through readily recognisable gimmicks (of the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies genre mash-up variety); Landis has an aptitude for an easy (as in facile), high concept soundbite, of the sort studio execs love to hear, which firmly precludes any attempt to evaluate whether there’s anything of value in them, let alone the finished screenplays. Which is where American Ultra comes in. An appealing-enough premise, even a half-decent trailer. But as a movie, it’s a stinker.
The kernel comes from the legendary MKUltra psy-ops programmes, whereby the CIA would programme/brainwash operatives to do their bidding. It’s a fascinating part of dark (as in not really all that mainstream) US twentieth (and twenty-first: it’s not as if it has all gone away suddenly) history, ideal fodder for the conspiracy-minded, and great subject matter for a Hollywood thriller. Provided the mettle is sufficiently grasped.
It has, of course, been tinkered with; Jason Bourne is essentially a programmed super-assassin, but a faulty one who has developed a conscience and is thus granted the thrilling skill set of a merciless killing machine, but in the reconstituted form of a hero. The Manchurian Candidate was the first picture to really set the cat among the pigeons in this regard, suggesting the establishment’s capacity for eliminating inconvenient political targets prior to the Kennedy assassinations. One could have a high old time in terms of movie potential just documenting the backgrounds and activities of the initiators of the MKUltra project, their theories and experiments, and the whole Nazi legacy, without needing to wrap in the palatable antiseptic scepticism that comes via its iteration in The Men Who Stare at Goats.
From the evidence of Landis’ screenplay, he didn’t even deign to read the Wiki-page on the subject, rather gleaning his marginal insights from movies themselves. Which, I guess, is legitimate, if you want to be responsible for strictly D-grade movies. Mike Howell (Jess Eisenberg, convincingly cast as a befuddled stoner, less so as an invincible death machine) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, their second of three pairings to date) live in a small, middle-of-nowhere town, getting majorly mashed while Mike tries and fails to leave amid difficulty expressing his thoughts and phobias to his ever-attentive partner.
His yen for getting out, rather than getting out of it, has attracted the attention of CIA up-and-comer Topher Grace, however, who summarily orders their ex-asset iced. Yes, Mike’s mental health issues don’t result from copious weed, but from being subjected to government mind control. Which is, of course, something anyone who has been regularly stoned has been paranoid about at some point, but is depicted in such a banal fashion by director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and his (no doubt stoned) writer as to render it creatively a bummer.
Nourizadeh’s action – and the chance to see the worm, or geek, turn, to satisfying effect, clearly the whole point of the exercise – is often incoherent and poorly-paced, accompanied by a noisy soundtrack from Marcelo Zarvos that’s trying and failing to paper over cracks where the editing is at a loss. Nourizadeh has little aptitude for the humour either, much of which, like the premise, has been borrowed from better movies (“He was armed with a spoon, sir”; if you’re going to steal, steal from Chronicles of Riddick).
As for his martialling of the actors. The leads are fine, but Walton Goggins and his magnificently, miraculously regrown hair is irritatingly, rather than appealingly OTT. As is Grace’s increasingly-frustrated CIA nemesis; ridiculous and annoying, and not remotely believable or threatening. John Legiuizamo, continuing with a recent parade of cameos, some of them solid, makes a mark as a paranoid dealer, while Tony Hale can’t help but turn his character into Tony Hale.
This is, at least, brief. But it’s also highly questionable in intent. Come the final scene, Mike and his handler Phoebe (now that was a surprise) are back working for the agency, free from moral qualms. We’re supposed to celebrate their choice, because it’s, like, cool. Which, I suspect, extends to Landis’ criteria with any given writing project. At one point It looks as if Mike might be having a flashback to being programmed as an operative from childhood (shots of boarding a school bus, fitting in with tales from those syphoned off from normal lessons for special careers from an early age), but then we find he simply signed up at 18. That might have given the picture a frisson, but probably not. It’s studiously safe and unchallenging throughout.
Perhaps Landis himself has been programmed, but to churn out formulaic bullshit. Perhaps Chronicle will remain that one exception in both his and Josh Trank’s careers. Somehow, Max has been let loose on a new version of Dirk Gently; at least we have the half-decent BBC4 version of a few years back. He’s also hit the jackpot with Netflix, which has paid a Shane Black-in-his-heyday-esque $3m for spec script Bright, about cops in a world where orcs and fairies live among humans (that sort of concept worked really well for R.I.P.D., after all). With that and the Adam Sandler deal, their original movie programming isn’t exactly off to a persuasive start.