American Ultra

Posted by Joel Copling on August 23, 2015

"American Ultra" (and Max Landis' screenplay for it) should not be immune to accusations of having tonal imbalance, especially considering the experience of it is almost on a scene-by-scene basis. There is comedy of both the wacky and pot-smoking kind (though less of the latter than the film's double-entendre tagline would have you think). There are action sequences with a sense of seriousness to them (apart from some amusing items used as weaponry or accessories to other weapons). And there is a central romance that's played for all the melodrama it's worth, which works because of the chemistry between the two parties involved. The whole thing works, actually, although it's a qualified sort of success.

Admittedly, it's the build-up to the crap-covered fan of the second act that works best here. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a bundle of nervous energy upon first we meet him, which is the first clue in a series of them that make up the film's central riddle. He has a nice but boring job at a food mart. He has a girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who clearly adores him. Mike plans to propose to Phoebe, in fact, buying illegal fireworks from his drug dealer (John Leguizamo) to garnish the occasion. All of that changes when he kills two apparent carjackers with almost easy efficiency (and a spoon he was using to eat a bowl of noodle soup, but anyway).

I'm now unsure whether I should go further, but let's say that there's a lot of business regarding the CIA and a program that is very similar to the one used in the Jason Bourne franchise. Topher Grace appears here as Yates, the CIA official spearheading the mysterious program, Bill Pullman has what amounts to an extended cameo of embarrassing overacting as the director from whom Yates did not receive approval, Connie Britton's Victoria Lasseter is the agent who wants to stop Yates' secondary operation of killing an asset she believes should live, and Tony Hale has a fun, against-type role as another agent with a similar crisis of conscience.

Really, though, too much focus is spent on the stuff outside the presence of Mike and Phoebe, who are far more interesting than bureaucratic stuff. There's a curious twist to Phoebe's character that sparks the second half into motion and, better, comes directly after a montage of small moments between two lovers (meaning the twist and its repercussions manage a real impact). There's the characters' chemistry, aided by terrific performances from Eisenberg and Stewart that utilize each of their strengths as performers (Eisenberg's tendency toward characters with neuroses, Stewart's deadpan habit of playing things close to the chest) and then shove them into being bodies in motion.

The real kicker, though, is the action, showcased in brutally violent sequences well-shot by director Nima Nourizadeh and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain (though one questions the use of slow-motion on occasion, such as one gag involving a frying pan) and in a few of the other operatives called in (such as one named Laugher for obvious reasons and played by Walton Goggins in a fascinating performance that plays with the character's most absurd tendencies and then eschews them for maximal creep factor). "American Ultra" isn't a movie that says a whole lot about anything, but it is one that features a character being dispatched via a package of frozen hamburger patties, so what's the use in complaining, really?

Film Information

Jesse Eisenberg (Mike Howell), Kristen Stewart (Phoebe Larson), Topher Grace (Adrian Yates), Connie Britton (Victoria Lasseter), Walton Goggins (Laugher), John Leguizamo (Rose), Bill Pullman (Krueger), Tony Hale (Petey Douglas), Monique Ganderton (Crane), Nash Edgerton (Beedle).

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis.

Rated R (bloody violence, language throughout, drug use, sexual content).

95 minutes.

Released on August 21, 2015.