American Ultra Blu-ray Review
Generation X meets DTS:X
Wouldn't it be fun if the protagonist of a film was a dorky guy who suddenly finds out he's a highly-trained sleeper agent?Well that is essentially the premise of American Ultra, a film that combines stoner comedy with super-spy antics to great effect. Jessie Eisenberg plays stoner Mike, who works at a convenience store, gets high and suffers from a crippling inability to physically leave his home town. Kristen Stewart plays Mike's girlfriend Phoebe and the pair seem perfectly happy to spend their time hanging out and getting stoned. Mike wants more for Phoebe but his attempt to propose whilst on holiday in Hawaii is scuppered by the fact he can't get on the plane. However the pair love each other and seem largely happy in their laid-back lifestyle. That is until Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), an ambitious operative at the CIA, decides to clean house and sends a hit squad to kill Mike. Yates has a new super-soldier programme and feels the one that created Mike was a mistake. Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), who ran the earlier programme learns of Yates's plan and drives out to active the oblivious Mike, in an attempt to save his life. Chaos ensues as Mike discovers unknown skills and, as the situation escalates, Yates puts the entire town in lock-down as he desperately tries to eliminate Mike, Phoebe and Lasseter.The role of Mike was tailored made for Jessie Eisenberg, who can play the confused, timid stoner in his sleep but can also be ice cold, cocky and threatening when necessary. He handles the challenges of Mike very well, effortlessly transitioning from the stoner loser to highly effective killing machine. He also conveys Mike's confusion at what is happening to him to great comic effect as he initially thinks the sudden appearance of all these assassins is just a very bad trip. Eisenberg is ably supported by an impressive cast, including the genuinely underrated Kirsten Stewart, Topher Grace and Connie Britton. John Leguizamo and Tony Hale deliver some fantastic comic relief and Walton Goggins is also very effective as the deranged 'Laugher'. The film was directed by British filmmaker Nima Nourizadeh from a knowing script by Max Landis and both do a great job of balancing the humour and the action. They ensure that you like Mike and Phoebe enough to care about them and even manage to find a degree of pathos when it comes to secondary characters like 'Laugher'. The result is an enjoyable action comedy with enough interesting characters and fun twists to make it worth 90 minutes of your time.
Picture QualityAmerican Ultra arrives on Region A (locked) Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate with a transfer that uses the theatrically correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is encoded at 1080p24 using the AVC codec. The film was shot digitally at a resolution of 2.8K with a 2K digital intermediate, so the results on the disc are suitably pristine. There's an impressive level of detail, especially in close-ups, and the film handles the nighttime scenes, of which there are many, very well. The image is dark when it needs to be and the blacks are never crushed, retaining shadow detail. Although the photography can be a little flat, which doubtless reflects the film's budget, and the picture lacks the pop of better-shot features.
The digitally shot picture never achieves demo quality but it remains a solid transfer.
However the image does remain vibrant and colourful when it needs to be and there's a certain comic book sensibility to the film that the transfer manages to portray very well. The overall colour scheme remains effective, with natural-looking flesh tones and a sense of realism; aside from scenes where the colours are deliberately exaggerated such as sequence that takes place under UV lighting. The transfer appears to be free of any unwanted digital artefacts and aside from a scene where gas is used to smoke out our heroes, there were no signs of any obvious banding. You probably won't be getting American Ultra out to demonstrate the picture quality to friends but this is still a solid presentation that is sure to please.
Sound QualityWe would normally review the Region B release of American Ultra but, as is often the case with these smaller budget independent films, there are different distributors and so different features on either side of the pond. The US release is being handled by Lionsgate and, as a result, American Ultra becomes the second film to be released on Blu-ray with a DTS:X soundtrack. The first disc to include DTS:X was the US Blu-ray of Ex Machina, which was also handled by Lionsgate and was similarly missing the feature here in the UK.
American Ultra certainly seems a more appropriate film to demonstrate a new immersive audio soundtrack than Ex Machina and at the cinema it sported an Auro 11.1 soundtrack, which presumably forms the basis for this DTS:X mix. We reviewed the DTS:X soundtrack of American Ultra using the same 7.2.4 speaker configuration we originally set up for Dolby Atmos. The flexibility of DTS:X allows for a number of different configurations but it makes sense to use the same one as Atmos, thus allowing you to enjoy both soundtracks. The DTS:X soundtrack includes a core DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack but thanks to the recent firmware update to the Denon AVR-X7200 AV receiver we were able to enjoy the full immersive experience.
The DTS:X soundtrack delivers a fun and immersive experience that really enhances the film's action scenes.
Whilst you might not use the picture quality on this disc as a way of showing off your system to friends, that's certainly not the case when it comes to the audio. Assuming you have the ability to decode DTS:X, and the firmware updates are finally rolling out to a lot of different processors and receivers over the next few months, then you're in for a treat. The film has a suitably amped up soundtrack that matches the comic book nature of much of the action and the greater sense of immersion really adds to the experience. There is a real impact to the effects and they form a very cohesive soundstage that surrounds you whilst also moving over head in an extremely effective way.
There are usual sound mixer favourites like helicopters flying overhead but you also get bullets ricocheting around the soundfield and explosions throwing debris all over the room. However it's the hand-to-hand combat where the soundtrack really delivers, as Mike ruthlessly takes out anyone in his way with a range of household items. The greater sense of immersion, coupled with plenty of bass energy, gives the sound a highly visceral impact that greatly adds to the enjoyment. In amongst all the action, the score weaves its way very effectively, whilst the dialogue remains centred and coherent. Without the chance to compare the same film in both DTS:X and Dolby Atmos it's impossible to say which is better, if at all, but DTS:X certainly sounds as good.
Extras"Activating American Ultra" (40:22) - This making-of documentary comes in two twenty minute parts, although there's a 'play all' option that allows you to watch it as a single feature. It's a fairly typical making-of, with interviews with director Nima Nourizadeh, writer Max Landis and the majority of the cast. There's behind the scenes footage and the featurette covers the conception, writing and production, with some emphasis on the stunt work.
"Assassinating on a Budget" (03:24) - A fairly pointless featurette that strings together all of Mike's kills in the film and adds up the cost of the various everyday items he uses to deadly effect.
Gag Reel (02:42) - The usual collection of actors goofing about and fluffing their lines.
Director's Commentary (96:00) - Nima Nourizadeh discusses the film and thanks to his London accent, it feels like you're listening to one of your mates down the pub. There is the old period of silence but overall he's an engaging commentator with plenty of production anecdotes.
Blu-ray VerdictAmerican Ultra takes its premise of a stoner sleeper agent and runs with it to great effect. The central idea might not be original but the film's comic take on The Bourne Identity certainly works, thanks to a knowing script, some effective direction and a great cast. The film delivers plenty of laughs, with a stand-out turn from John Leguizamo that nearly steals the show, and there's some decent action with Jesse Eisenberg getting a rare chance to kick ass. Ultimately it's a fun ride that won't tax your brain but will keep you entertained until the end credits.
American Ultra is an enjoyable film and the US disc is certainly worth tracking down for the DTS:X soundtrack.
The Region A Locked Blu-ray release from Lionsgate is generally excellent, with a solid transfer that captures the film's original photography. Any limitations are the result of the film's budget rather than the disc itself and overall this is a very good, if not quite a demo quality picture. However the DTS:X soundtrack is superb, taking the film to another level and creating an immersive and highly visceral audio experience that really adds to the viewer's enjoyment. A decent set of extras really adds to the overall package, making this US release worth tracking down if you have a multi-region (or Region A) player.
You can buy the Region A Blu-ray of American Ultra here
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £18.00
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