Dir: Nima Nourizadeh
Writer(s): Max Landis
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale, John Leguizamo and Bill Pullman
Synopsis: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.
*Reviewer Note: This will be a spoiler free review.*
When you think of movies with stoner leads you don’t really imagine there is going to be any action in it, or at least hardcore action. That is not the case with American Ultra, in fact, it works almost the opposite. It’s an action film with stoners in it. It’s a rather odd mix considering the action in the film is very heighten at times and albeit a bit shocking at times, but it always makes sense when you see the events of the film and how the movie operates.
American Ultra follows Mike Powell (Eisenberg), a stoner working in a convenience store in Liman, West Virginia with his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart). The two are happily in love, however Mike was part of a failed CIA operation called “Wise Man” and ambitious upstart CIA agent Adrian Yates (Grace) plans on wiping away everyone in the program, which includes Mike. When the program’s former head Victoria Lasseter (Britton) goes against the agency and actives him, the town is put into lockdown and Mike’s programming starts to go into effect, making him a lethal and trained killer. Now with Yates and his own program assets try to kill Mike, he must protect himself and Phoebe from getting killed.
I wasn’t really expecting much from this to be honest. I thought it would be a dumb fun action comedy, and while it is that for the most part, there is something about it that sets it apart from other action comedies. The other reason I wasn’t looking forward to it that much was I’m a little tired of Jesse Eisenberg playing the stoner/deadbeat-like character. Thankfully, here it isn’t too distracting. Sure he goes on some stereotypical-like dialogue, but Eisenberg’s deadpan and rapid delivery make it work, especially with the great chemistry he has with Stewart. I will say though, that his rambling does get a bit old during some points.
The rest of the cast works too and all have their shared moments to shine. Kristen Stewart – who is still probably shaking off the Twilight hate from fans – is pretty good here, playing Mike’s girlfriend Phoebe, who loves and supports him and thankfully there is more to her character than that, but is hurt a bit by becoming a de-factor-o damsel in distress in the last act of the movie. Topher Grace is weirdly miscast as the films villain. Although it makes some sense, as he’s trying to prove himself, there is a weird disconnect since because he’s more humorous than bossy.
It’s actually Walton Goggins, who is as reliable as always, that plays more of the villain role as the asset Laugher, for reasons you can probably imagine. Connie Britton looks to be having some fun playing her serious CIA agent, but at the same time has a protective side of her as she tries to help Mike get through everything. John Leguizamo plays Mike’s drug dealer Rose and has some funny moments, but is nothing more than a minor character, and the same can be said for Tony Hale who plays another CIA agent, Petey, caught in the middle of the power struggle between Britton’s Lasseter and Grace’s Yates. Finally, Bill Pullman pops up in a cameo performance that doesn’t really serve too much purpose other than being another government official.
While the film is highly enjoyable, American Ultra does take a hit early on as it does something that kind takes away from the enjoyment of the film as it “rewinds” everything. In some cases it works in films, but only if they do it as a final ta-da moment in the final few minutes, but not the very start of the film. Also, the film’s tone is a bit scattered. The film goes from action-comedy to spy espionage film, and the flip flop is a bit jarring at times, especially with the heighten and hyperactive violence in the film.
As for the action, the scenes are great to watch unfold. Yes, they might be a bit violent or jarring for some people, but considering what the movie is, I’m not surprised by how the violence is approached. A highlight is definitely the final act supermarket sequence.
All in all, American Ultra isn’t that bad of a film. Yes, there are some jarring things about it tone wise, and while the rewind aspect hurts the film, the enjoyment of watching the events unfold in real time is enough to make you forget that to some extent. If anything, the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart is enough to keep you entertained.
4 out of 5