American Ultra; Casualty of Bad Critics

Last weekend I saw a movie. Nothing unusual so far but keep reading. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, which starred Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (an established pairing, I refer you to Adventureland) as a stoner couple in a small town in West Virginia, whose life is torn apart by the CIA. Jesse was part of a project you see, he was enhanced like Jason Bourne to be a super soldier and then had his mind wiped blank when the project was cancelled. I don’t need to reveal anything more of the plot than that. Seth Rogan Slacker meets Jason Bourne. It is American Ultra.

This film was a critical and commercial failure, and I cannot work out why this was so. That is, I don’t know why it didn’t make back it’s $35 million budget. I expect it was a combination of economic factors, like the competition with Hitman Agent 47, And the difficulty marketing a genre hybrid film. But I do know why it was a critical failure. And it has nothing to do with the movie — but everything to do with vapid nature of film criticism.

I target Red Letter Media, a collection of film aficianado’s who produce good value discussion material on YouTube and hilarious reviews like Mr Plinkett. I target Peter Travers of the Rolling Stone magazine who since the death of Roger Ebert has become the de facto supreme critic. They should know better. I am taking aim Rotten Tomatoes and the whole rating/review aggregate system, which ends up dumbing down movie-going and supporting the cynical producer viewpoint of cinema being all about the numbers.

With your indulgence I will take these in reverse order. Rotten Tomatoes gave American Ultra a 42% rating. Stale if not rotten. That number was based on over a hundred ratings, but the real lump of pungent green putty from satan’s armpit is to be found in their narcissistic “critical consensus”; that the film had some good ideas but failed to reach it’s potential. Peter Travers said something similar, that Eisenberg and Stewart were good, but the film as a whole was not. That is kinder but no less brainless. Since when did film criticism equate to being a sour high school teacher who can’t handle the disruptive student? “Oh I am afraid they are a very disappointing child, they do not reach their full potential.” I challenge you, dear reader, to try to tease out any specific meaning from these remarks. What made the film not good Mr Travers? What is its potential Rotten Tomatoes? Is $500 million at the box office and ten Oscar nominations its full potential? If that is the measure then I am not at all surprised it didn’t reach it. If it is not then what in hell is?

All we have in film criticism is logic. It isn’t science, there is no universally acclaimed film, no matter what there will be people who don’t like Star Wars, or Titanic, or Citizen Kane. Criticism is opinion backed up by reasoned argument. Reviews are just the opinion part, but even then it is opinion masquerading as fact. Peter Travers writes that the film is not good. That is a statement of fact, because it omits the crucial preface “I think”. By skipping that it claims to be fact and fact must be backed up with logic and reason. When that happens a film review becomes elementary film criticism, and suddenly worth a damn.

Red Letter Media does deal in film criticism. There is no suggestion that the guys involved are espousing facts, they discuss their opinions and back hem up with logic. So far so good. But they slammed American Ultra, a film I liked, to the evident hurt of writer Max Landis, who took the criticism personally. Well, they were pretty harsh with their appraisal of the writing, and Max Landis responded on twitter with a lament for originality in Hollywood. He was proverbially crucified for that remark. He wasn’t meaning that American Ultra is a beacon of originality, with it’s plot heavily influenced by the Bourne films as I have already mentioned. But it wasn’t based on anything. There was no TV show, or comic, or novel of American Ultra. It wasn’t a remake of an old (no not so old) flick. It is as original as anything humans routinely manage, and the routine is rarely practiced now in Hollywood.

What makes this important to me is that with such commercial and critical failure it will be all the harder to get future films like it off the ground. Making a film is incredibly difficult, and making an independent film is near impossible. The action sequences in American Ultra require a Hollywood budget, plain and simple. I don’t want Hollywood to simply be the province of the tentpole blockbuster, The Avengers, Star Wars etc. The trap Red Letter Media falls into is the same that catches film students everywhere. You learn so much about the craft, about what makes a good film that the idealised perfect film becomes a standard by which you measure everything you don’t like. The things you do often get a free pass. Who cares about the plotholes in Inception when the film was so engrossing? But for some reason you don’t like American Ultra, maybe because it has Kristen Stewart and she still has the Twilight taint. That is poor criticism and I accuse Red Letter Media of it.

Why did I like American Ultra? Well, I have a very simple and logical measure. Did it achieve its ends? For an action/comedy did it thrill me and did it make me laugh? Yes, and oh my god yes. There is a sequence in a supermarket in which Jessie Eisenberg fights several armed men with items off the shelf as weapons. It is brilliantly shot, with one fluid shot following Eisenberg for a couple of minutes of violent action with no cut. The choreography is superb, Eisenberg’s skinny awkward physique beating larger and stronger assailants is funny and actually believable. He doesn’t ham. Kristen Stewart gets a few punches as well (taken and given) and the emergence of two bloody people through the smoke near the end denies the consequence free violence often portrayed in Hollywood.

The writing was sound too, right up to the finish. The final line tying back to the accidental brilliance of Eisenberg’s character, long suppressed by amnesia and dope. I won’t reveal it, I hope you will see the movie. Piracy has hurt the film greatly. After typing it into Tumblr I found that half the posts on it included links to streaming websites. Piracy doesn’t hurt big blockbusters, but they are the ones to go after it most fiercely. It does hurt smaller Hollywood movies, which do have distribution deals (unlike Indie flicks) and must make money in the cinemas. I hope that Blu-ray sales give American Ultra the second wind it deserves.

Finally, on Kristen Stewart, she is a good actress. Twilight is dead and gone and forgotten. For every clunker she has done I can point to something she did well. Speak, Into The Wild, Adventureland, The Runaways. Every oeuvre has its drudgery as well as its gold. I’ll happily take the gold wherever I find it.

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