Review – Ultra Confusing (“American Ultra”)

Yeah, I know…  weird title. But that’s okay, as it fits in perfectly for this weird little film written by Max Landis, the man who wrote the strange movie Chronicle. What you have here is a movie that supposed to be a comedy, an action-adventure, and a drama all rolled into one, but can’t decide on which way it wants to go.

You got stoner-slacker Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) living in small-town Limon, WV with his patient girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart sporting flaming orange hair, no less). Mike runs a Carry ‘n’ Go convenience store in town, draws a silly comic book called Apollo Ape, and is subject to panic attacks and anxiety over leaving town. This is especially relevant as he wants to marry Phoebe and go to Hawaii, which he opts out of and cancels.

Meanwhile, over at CIA HQ, we find out things are going bad. CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) learns that her rival, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), is her new boss. This guy’s a real power-mad, narcissistic dick and has seized control of Victoria’s sleeper agent Ultra Program, ordering the deaths of her current assets. This includes the last one, Mike Lasseter. In an effort to save Mike, she finds him and activates his hidden training with a special phrase. Mike has no idea what she’s talking about until CIA assassins come to kill him and BOOM! Mike takes them out so fast and stealth-fully that he hardly knows what happened.

Panicking, he tells Phoebe the bizarre news and together they try to figure out why so many people are trying to kill him. More and more hired guns are sent and Mike takes them out without really knowing how or why he’s doing it. After a brief layover at his friend Rose’s (John Leguizamo) home, Yates escalates his plans to get Mike by ordering even more killers, like the psychopathic Laughter (Walton Goggins), who attacks and eventually thinks he’s killed Mike while grabbing Phoebe.

But Phoebe isn’t who we think she is. She’s really a CIA ‘handler’ who was suppose to take care of Mike, but fell in love with him instead. Now captured by Yates, Phoebe is pissed that Mike is being hunted, but she needn’t worry; Lasseter and Mike have a plan. Mike decides to surrender to Yates at a local shopping mall, but it’s gonna be on his terms and against a plethora of trained killers. Let the games begin!

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh, this is only his second movie. His first film, 2012’s Project X, was a dud, so it’s nice to see that he’s moved away from the shaky-cam “found footage” film style. His direction has a nice flow to it, even borrowing from famed director John Landis (the writer’s father), but it’s the script here that’s hincky. Landis wrote on so many levels that it’s hard to figure out what kind of movie he wanted. Stoner comedy like Pineapple Express? Sleeper agent movie like Salt? Action-adventure with a high body count like Commando? A slacker with people getting killed left and right like True Romance? Yes to all! Confused audience? Yup!

This movie had SO much potential if it had stuck to just one genre, but as a full-on comedy, it misses the mark entirely. Eisenberg does a credible job here in his non-slacker persona, and Stewart really has some great scenes as his faux-girlfriend. Topher Grace is just way over the top in his role and Collins’ character seemed written for a guy. Odd. The one really cool character in this picture is the twisted Laughter who, slap on some white make-up and a green wig, and you’d have an awesome Joker.

Telefon (1977)
*

*
Say the magic phrase and get turned into a KGB kamikaze sleeper agent! That’s the premise for a terrific movie based on Walter Wager’s novel, Mind Control, and starring granite-faced Charles Bronson and icy-blue eyes Lee Remick.

It’s right after the Cold War and there’s a huge problem: a Russian KGB clerk nutjob named Nikolai Dalchimsky (Donald Pleasence) has stolen an ultra-secret booklet containing the names of 55 deep, deep cover sleeper agents living in the U.S. as Americans for the past 20 years. Placed there when the KGB had planned to start a war within the U.S., they ultimately said nyet, and nixed those plans. But Nikolai wants to start war again by calling them up, one by one, and repeating a certain Robert Frost poem. This triggers dormant instructions to certain people as they carry out suicide missions to U.S. military bases or installations.

Meanwhile, over at CIA HQ, Harley Sanberg (Frank Marth) has his computer geek girl, Dotty Putterman (a young Tyne Daly) try to find out what’s happening with all the weird suicides going on at U.S. bases and such. But little do they know that Russia has already sent their top KGB man, Major Grigori Bortsov (Bronson), to stop the crazy Nikolai. They’ve also sent ahead a back-up agent named Barbara (Remick) to pose as Grigori’s wife.

Barbara and Grigori team up like an odd couple (she’s vivacious and fun–he’s serious and gruff) to go after the looney as the suicides/explosions continue. Luckily, a pattern emerges (Nikolai is spelling out his name with each city attacked) and they quickly set into motion a means of following him to his next target. However, Grigori isn’t aware of one little detail: Barbara is really a double-agent that has been ordered by Sanberg (and the KGB) to kill Grigori the moment he’s completed his mission. Will she do it? Has Grigori found love with Barbara in the U.S.? And check out all the phone booths in this movie!

A tight, fast-paced adapted screenplay by Peter Hyams and Sterling Silliphant with decent direction by Don Siegel. It’s a quirky little espionage film with great acting and a terrific screenplay that fell by the wayside back in the 70’s. Bronson doesn’t go berserk and kill a bunch of people here, like in his other films, but plays it real and naturally and Remick is delightful as an agent who falls for the temperamental Russian. And that took a lot of acting, btw. Remick was “scared to death” of Bronson and refused to touch him on the cheek in a key scene. Hey, I know what you mean; the man could frighten a gargoyle!

Here’s a tasty bit of trivia – check out the girl sleeper agent who blows up a hillside refinery… that’s the old Simi Valley/Chatsworth Rocketdyne missile testing plant in the San Fernando mountains! Also, better not let PETA know that they really blew the head off a rattlesnake in the final bar scene. Hey, it was the 70’s!