American Ultra

0 3.5 out of 5 stars
Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg , Kristen Stewart , Connie Britton , Topher Grace
Max Landis
Duration: 95 min
Release Date:
August 21, 2015
MPAA Rating:

There's a particularly heartfelt and comedic scene in American Ultra, in which Jesse Eisenberg's character, Mike Howell, stoned out of his goddamn mind, looks at a car that's crashed into a tree, and with a single tear streaming down his face—something of an Eisenberg specialty—apologizes to his girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) for being the tree that's stopping her, the fast-moving car in this metaphor. This scene comes in towards the beginning of the movie, the calm before the storm, prior to the two inadvertently ending up on a high-speed, high-stakes, just plain high ride fueled by hyper-violence, weed, and ramen (you'll see). If the interrogation flashbacks in the beginning are any indication, it's pretty obvious from the get-go that American Ultra wears many different faces: It's an action movie disguised as a quirky indie drama disguised as a stoner comedy. And that tree Mike thinks he is? Well, spoiler alert: Turns out they're both cars.

In a way, this film about a sleeper agent is a sleeper film, initially taking place in the small, fictional, nothing-ever-happens town of Lima, West Virginia, before turning it into a battlefield. Mike's idle life soon gets overturned when he becomes a target, in danger of being terminated by a mysterious CIA project. But Mike, as it turns out, has an assassin past, and thanks to an activation by rogue agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), he's more than capable of defending himself—and here's where things get really good.

Once the film kicks off, boy is American Ultra a bloody good time. But because this is a stoner comedy—well, it's funny, and there are stoners in it—the fighting sequences are as silly as they are gory. The violence of it is actually quite surprising, the film goes from 0 to 100 so quickly. One moment, Mike is a not-very-ambitious comic book artist working as a cashier in a small convenience store called Cash and Carry, and the next, he is single-handedly taking down armed assassins in a parking lot. He's not even sure how he's doing it. It's funny because Mike is the last person you'd think would win a fight: 1) He's perpetually nervous and frequently suffers from panic attacks, and 2) well, look at Jesse Eisenberg—he's not exactly built like an action hero. But it's so ludicrous it works. (Just as ridiculous is Hollywood Zeta Male Topher Grace flexing as an Alpha CIA agent. It shouldn't work, but it does.) American Ultra, built upon ridiculous premise and casting, is not only the funniest but unexpectedly one of the best action movies of the summer. (Dare I say, even better than Mission: Impossible 5?)

The fun of American Ultra is watching Mike fumble through the action sequences, and then being as shocked as audience members are about how apt he is in the field of combat. Jesse Eisenberg's unforeseen action hero self can slay any professional killer that gets in his way, using any weapon he can, from spoons, to pans, to makeup aisle mirrors. But Kristen Stewart should get just as much credit—the movie wouldn't be half of what it is without her. As Phoebe, she's the confidence and the sass to the awkward, unsure Mike, and her acting—which has really bloomed over the years—makes the quieter, tender moments just as enjoyable as the action spots. Credit their previous film together, Adventureland (2009) if you will, but Eisenberg and Stewart share the kind of onscreen chemistry that may bring tears amidst all the laughing. 

Phoebe does her own share of ass-kicking, it's just less funny than the Eisenberg scenes because it's 100 percent believable that Kristen Stewart would kick your ass. There's the overhanging sense—and Mike feels this, too—that Phoebe is too good for him (he can't take her on vacation; he can't even make an omelet properly!) but after each obstacle, and an emotional montage later, their love seems real. Phoebe gives unconditional love, and by the time Mike proves to be an actual capable human being, he finally feels worthy of that love. By the end of the hour-and-a-half thrill, beat up and bloodied up, they're brought even closer together. 

Aside from Eisenberg and Stewart, everyone else in this cast helps bring American Ultra to the high level of action-comedy it deserves to be lauded as. Connie Britton gets all the handclaps, while Tony Hale (a.k.a. Buster Bluth) as a nervous CIA agent and John Leguizamo as Mike's drug dealer, Rose, add more levels of comic relief to the already hilarious film. Then there's Walton Goggins' crazed assassin Laugher and Bill Pullman playing a CIA boss. No one feels like a throwaway character, though many are killed off with excessive amounts of blood.

American Ultra is inherently silly—it's well aware of that—but it's a hell of a riot. There may be a lot of predictable humor (Mike doesn't know what he's doing, but he's kicking ass! Also he's stoned!), but it also pulls a lot unexpected punches—to the gut and to the heart.