Before even taking a hit of the first scene, American Ultra is the kind of movie that demands you get on its wavelength. Well, perhaps not demands, because that seems a little too authoritative for this type of eager-to-chill experience, man. But it certainly strongly invites you to come along with its proverbial Californian hospitality.
There has probably never been a more relaxed action movie about CIA assassins and all that end-of-the-world, high-level nefarious shit than what we get during the shootouts in American Ultra, which are defined as much by the puffs of smoke coming from Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s mouths as the explosions they leave in their wake. And when consumed via their well-baked chemistry, it’s easy to go along with this very easygoing movie.
Ostensibly about how Eisenberg’s Mike Howell, a monosyllabic stoner wasting away in West Virginia, is secretly a government trained/brainwashed killing machine for the CIA, American Ultra is really much more once you get past the action movie haze. While Mike might be presented as the most unassuming Jason Bourne of the Deadhead faithful’s last show, the purpose is more than a comically twisted set-up for an action-laugher; nay, American Ultra is an ideal.
Like being trapped inside a stoner’s most beloved and paranoid conspiracy theory, this is the kind of movie where the government actually does take people they’re unhappy with out into a rainy, wooded area with a couple of bullets—and also one where every person around you secretly knows that you’re a genius, and like super sexy, even when you’re at your highest. This is ganja wish fulfillment and cult classic-baiting at its most unapologetic, and is only missing a Danny Trejo cameo for its vision to be complete. It also is such a knowingly dopey concept that only the most starched suit can ever fully begrudge it of its fun.
Cooked up from a Max Landis (Chronicle) screenplay, American Ultra fuels its story on establishing that Mike really does appear to have killed every brain cell left in his head. With no true memory or concern about having ever left his West Virginian small town, he works the nightshift at a 24-hour convenience store, mostly eating the instant-ready soup rather than selling it. He also has panic attacks whenever he just glances at an airport.
The one good thing he has going in his life is Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), his live-in and much smarter girlfriend. She’s the stoner dream girl with tie-dye hair and matching ankle tattoos. Yet in the beginning, the movie surprisingly condemns the lifestyle, giving the audience the idea that Phoebe could do so much better than the schlub that she must be both a lover and a mother for.
That changes when CIA spooks, who talk like all those pompous Ivy League-bound douchebags from high school, decide that their deactivated sleeper cell killer (Mike) is too dangerous to be left alive. Playing an exquisitely cartoonish pencil-neck, Topher Grace’s Adrian Yates orders a hit on Mike’s life.
Meanwhile, Mike’s brainwashing creator, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), swings by the convenience store for a last minute goodbye and warning of his impending fate. Upon being reactivated by the conversation, Mike’s expert martial arts knowledge and mass murder skills come back into effect, much to the shock of everyone around him, especially Phoebe.
Still, he’ll always be that guy who’ll pick up an active grenade and stare blankly at it for half-a-minute.
American Ultra is again that aforementioned paranoid hallucination, and it can be just as chaotically free-flowing. Never quite a full-on comedy or action movie, the picture floats between genre conventions, as well as its own genuine convictions, with various levels of success. But the one area where it exudes just the right amount of buzz is its reunion casting of Eisenberg and Stewart.
Having already starred together in a previous teen cult classic with 2009’s Adventureland, each actor went their own way to movie stardom afterwards (though one imagines that Oscar winning biopics proved to be a more satisfying route than sparkling vampires). And here, they pick up again with two decidedly even less ambitious burnouts than those amusement park employees, but their laid back heat still crackles like a slow burn in the lungs.
Mike admits in voiceover narration that Phoebe is his better half, and in fact it’s mostly the appeal of these two actors together that keeps Mike from being a total irredeemably pathetic protagonist. Thus it’s mystifying that they have so few scenes together. Despite being the strongest element of the film, the plot separates Mike and Phoebe for about half the picture when Mike starts embracing his unstoppable (and medicinal) superhero alter-ego. Quizzically, this is the true wasted potential of Mike Howell’s life story, and a disservice to Phoebe who generally lacks one.
Still, the action set-pieces devised by director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) mostly land with a refreshing lack of CGI or even too much quick-cutting. Relying on stunts and some kinetic fight choreography, Jesse Eisenberg as the action hero is perpetually amusing, and certainly a step-up from its fellow espionage slugfest this weekend, the terminally dull Hitman: Agent 47.
American Ultra is never quite the action-comedy hybrid spectacle that one imagines Landis and Nourizadeh fully intended, but the jokes still land mostly as well as the punches, creating a comfortable viewing experience, if not one to sit up on the futon for. When coupled with some broad but welcome supporting work by Britton and Grace, as well as cameos from John Leguizamo and Bill Pullman, American Ultra inhales deeply from a batch of slouched fun. Like the kind that seems destined to live on in college dorm rooms for many moons to come.