Deathmatch: Assassins

American Ultra vs. Hitman: Agent 47!

Posters from American Ultra and Hitman: Agent 47

Images from IMDb

Ultra gets the most caveated of recommendations. I could totally understand why a reasonable person would hate this film and/or just write it off as a hot mess. But I won’t lie to you. I did enjoy it. Primarily because I have infinite affection for interesting failures. It’s certainly not good, and it’s not nearly bad enough to fall into the entertainingly awful camp. It’s a middling diversion at best, but that’s what makes it so perfect for letting your armchair director out to play. I essentially entertain myself by trying to diagnose where I personally think the filmmakers went ever so slightly astray leading to somewhat catastrophic consequences. Sort of like how a spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere only needs to go a few degrees off course to explode.

Ultra is essentially a much edgier version of Conspiracy Theory. Kooky, loveable loser has a dangerous backstory that involves government experimentation to create killer operatives. This version of that story is going to have trouble finding its audience because the trailer is selling an off-kilter stoner comedy. The experience of watching the movie feels very different from that, but I don’t think you can rightfully accuse them of bait-and-switch marketing. That’s clearly what they intended to make, but they kind of failed.

I think all the correct pieces were in place. It’s a problem of tone. They want to keep things relatively light, snappy, and satirical and contrast that with a few moments of startling violence. That’s why they assembled a cast entirely comprised of actors with quirky comedies on their resumes. But when you peel away all the surface layers, this story is so horrifyingly sad and bleak and painful. Too sad to be funny. If instead they had gone full-tilt serious and contrasted it with a few moments of startling levity, they really would have had something. Something Cohen Brothers-esque.

In comparison, Hitman is relatively successful in its modest aim to make a straightforward action flick, but it’s also missing something. The whole movie reflects its protagonist: competent, ruthlessly efficient, maddeningly opaque, and devoid of personality by design. Again we deal with the violent products of experimentation although this time it’s genetic in nature and corporate in origin. At the heart of the plot is a young woman played by Hannah Ware. She spends the entire running time getting chased and shuttled as a hostage back and forth between two shadowy organizations, but she’s a lot spunkier than that might suggest.

The movie is soggy on both ends, but it hits its stride for a while in the middle with some entertaining training-related sequences with Agent 47 and his protégé. Even so, I resent Hitman’s overall attitude; this film believes I owe it something. It clearly expects me to show up for a sequel even though it never bothered to fully explain what was happening and why this first time around (or second, depending on how you feel about reboots).

So I think the movie deathmatch prize narrowly goes to Ultra. The interesting thing about this pairing is that it lends itself towards questions about a much more literal type of deathmatch. If two assassins enter a room and only one comes out, who would it be? Jesse Eisenberg’s Mike or Rupert Friend’s Agent 47? Given that so many of 47’s deadly but overly elaborate stratagems would require months of planning (and probably straight-up psychic precognition) to pull off effectively, I initially thought that Mike’s more improvisational style would prevail in a one-on-one close combat scenario. But 47 does actually seem pretty capable in the more spontaneous fights he has later in his movie, and he has a stronger will to kill. So he’d probably eke it out, but I bet he’d walk away limping.

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