It’s not unusual for Hollywood to pit supersoldiers against supersoldiers in a screenplay, but this week that goes meta with a showdown at the box office between two movies in which that storyline occurs. Not that it’s clear which box office position they’re actually fighting for as it seems likely they’ll both lose to continuing releases such as “Straight Outta Compton” (see last week’s column).
“American Ultra” reteams “Adventureland”’s Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, with Eisenberg playing the unlikeliest of supersoldiers: Mike Howell is a stoner mini-mart employee who has no idea he’s also a dormant CIA agent until he kills two men with a spoon and a cup of instant noodles. Think of Jason Bourne cast in Kevin Smith’s “Clerks.”
He’s the last recruit from a program that produced more misses than hits and he’s essentially been put out to pasture in smalltown America, programmed to have anxiety attacks that prevent him from ever traveling – which makes him easy to watch but frustrating to date. His girlfriend is played in better-than-“Twilight” mode by Stewart, and the twosome is pretty entertaining to watch.
Where “American Ultra” is the chucklefest, “Hitman: Agent 47” is played entirely straight. That said, it still causes audiences to laugh on occasion but those moments are less intentional.
Rupert Friend plays the titular 47th agent in a series of genetically enhanced experiments, tasked with finding the man who ran that program but subsequently went into hiding. However, he’s not the only one with that mission and he’s dogged at every step by Zachary Quinto as John Smith, a bulletproof agent of the mysterious Syndicate – an organization with a boss who’d love to have a private super army.
Both films are quite gruesomely violent at times, and both are R-Rated, yielding significant body counts. But where Agent Howell looks at his own carnage with a horrified and Urkelesque “Did I do that?” reaction, Agent 47 is all calmness and efficiency. His emotions have been programmed out of him. He knows exactly who and what he is and, in an interesting detail, he can go to sleep in an instant whereas the young woman he finds himself protecting is a mess in terms of both emotions and her self-identity and doesn’t achieve sleep anything like as easily. It’s odd to walk away from a film like “Hitman: Agent 47,” having seen his vast skillset of action moves, and envy his sleeping ability the most. Although Agent Howell’s prodigious marijuana habit would probably solve the problem with less need for emotional deprogramming.
Both films also start somewhat awkwardly. “American Ultra” does the fairly common late in the story opening scene (across an interview table – a setup we see to different effect in both films) followed by a timeshift backwards to when the action began, but it moves backwards through time using a fast rewind visual approach. The downside to this is that it’s actually quite comprehensive and detailed and acts like a giant reversed spoiler reel. Undermining itself in a different manner, “Hitman: Agent 47” starts with a comprehensive backstory about the Agent Program that simultaneously negates the need for expository dialog or finesse in the filmmaking and makes the film seem like a sequel to what might have been a more interesting film. (Note” This film doesn’t feel very connected to 2007’s “Hitman.”)
The upside to “Hitman: Agent 47,” assuming there is one, is that following that opening, it moves along at a steadily frenetic pace, with little or no letup in the action. And that action feels reminiscent of “The Matrix” series where Keanu Reeves’ Neo is being pursued by a similarly indestructible character named Smith – there’s much bendy shooting and bullet-dodging and the same seemingly endless pursuit.
That pacing is something that might have helped “American Ultra” which slows down far more frequently, despite being at its best when Eisenberg is surprising himself, and those unfortunate enough to get in his way, with his opportunistic killing abilities.
Neither film is faring especially well with critics, although “American Ultra” is leading in that regard – and both films are performing similarly disappointingly, in terms of approval ratings, from early audiences. Watching both fairly close together was interesting because, while I enjoyed “American Ultra” more overall, it also disappointed me more as it seemed like it could have been better. On a personal level, I would have preferred a faster pace and less of the upfront spoiling of the action. In comparison, “Hitman: Agent 47” is a simple film, based on a video game, that never seems to attempt to be anything more than an extended, action-packed chase sequence – and in that sense alone, it actually works reasonably well, assisted by convenient plot leaps and numerous Audis.
So “American Ultra” feels like a B- paper from potentially A- material and “Hitman: Agent 47” feels like a solid C+ where no more was expected. Neither is likely to hurt the director’s track record as neither has much of a track record to hurt. “American Ultra” is directed by Nima Nourizadeh, who previously only made the out of control party film “Project X,” and “Hitman: Agent 47” is directed by newcomer Aleksander Bach. I was entertained by both but I’d still recommend several other films in continuing current release before I’d recommend either of these.