August is usually one of the highest, driest times of the year for new movies. “Serious” films are shelved until close enough to Christmas to garner awards-season buzz and most of the highest-budget blockbusters have already come and gone through theaters. This year’s blockbuster fare has been pretty disappointing, with the notable exception of Mad Max: Fury Road, so something like American Ultra comes as a surprise this late in the season. This is a witty, exciting action-comedy that nearly transcends the confines of that overused format.
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Producers: David Alpert, Anthony Bregman, Kevin Scott Frakes, Mritton Rizzio, Raj Brinder Singh
Writer: Max Landis
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Cinematographer: Michael Bonvillain
Editors: Andrew Marcus, Bill Pankow
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Steward, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
US Theatrical Release: August 21, 2015
US Distributor: Lionsgate
The film follows Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), a pair of stoners living in small-town West Virginia. Mike works as a convenience store clerk and the two live in an unassuming house where there’s always a record on the stereo and a joint in hand. “We were the perfect fucked-up couple,” says Mike’s voice-over to introduce the pair. Phoebe is competent and extremely accommodating, even when Mike is gripped with powerful bouts of neurosis. He has a panic attack every time he tries to leave town, even when trying to go on a romantic Hawaiian vacation.
Secretly, Mike is a military experiment—a brainwashed CIA “ultra” who, once activated, becomes a strange mix of neurotic stoner burnout and highly trained killing machine. The premise is stupid, and the government plot surrounding it is contrived; it involves a power struggle within the CIA between young desk jockey Yates (Topher Grace) and embittered veteran CIA executive Lassiter (Connie Britton), and the domestic drone strikes that Rand Paul has been harping about for years. Yet despite the questionable merit of this plot, or the action-comedy in general, American Ultra succeeds; this is an A-plus action movie with a wry script.
As an action hero, Mike is somewhere between Jason Bourne and Angus MacGuyver, with most of his CIA training apparently about using household items as deadly weapons. (In the trailer he uses a cast-iron frying pan to ricochet a bullet around a refrigerator, right on target.) Much ado is made about this ingenuity, most notably when he uses seemingly innocuous items—a spoon and a hot pack of ramen noodles, for instance—to deadly ends. This seems a little silly, since he also breaks necks and arms with his bare hands, but it’s all part of the film’s prop-heavy shtick, and it works. What’s really impressive is the way props and settings are subtly and consistently laid out. Each scene is littered with dozens of potential Chekov’s guns, be they sharp steel dustpans or hefty kettlebells, and without fail they all go off in predictably gruesome ways.
That’s partly due to the nuanced script. Mike is perfectly written, with the pathos and mental flightiness of someone who’s had a few too many psychedelic experiences. He misuses words and mixes up ideas seamlessly. Max Landis’s last notable script was for Chronicle, which tapped into the teen angst of the X-Box/Mountain Dew/Ayn Rand generation (even if it took itself a little too seriously), and he does well again here. If anything, this script is not serious enough, and the in-jokey action-comedy feel takes away from a legitimately interesting love story between Phoebe and Mike. Eisenberg and Stewart, an unlikely duo, are wonderful—his nervous energy pairing with her sullen stares make for a near-perfect harmony. The way they interact, particularly in moments when Mike lets a little of his childlike glee show, rings true in profound ways well beyond the typical action-comedy depiction of women as mysterious sexual beings to be wooed by the heroism of male protagonists.
Some of the other characters end up significantly more one-dimensional. Yates is a self-important parody of a Millennial, but Topher Grace manages by exhibiting once again his ability to play a whiny, entitled prick. (If there’s anyone in Hollywood who can play despicable better than Grace, I haven’t seen them.) But the other CIA operatives (Britton, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman) are playing little more than suits with one-word character descriptions—maternal, cowardly, and stately respectively. Little of that matters, though, as the well-paced plot progresses from one exciting action set piece to the next. A culminating fight scene in a big box store is silly and exciting in equal parts, and features dozens of innovative and truly gruesome action sequences.
What really hurts this film is the way it has been marketed. With taglines like “There’s nothing more dangerous than a stoned cold killer” and an aggressive stoner marketing campaign (the press screening featured ramen noodle swag packs and a rep booth from a Twin Cities pipe shop), you would expect this film to follow in the footsteps of Pineapple Express or Harold and Kumar. But unlike those films, which are about stoners thrust into action-adventure situations, this is an action movie whose main character just happens to be a stoner. The script could just as easily have been about any unassuming type unlocking these hidden ultra-military abilities, and the weed jokes that pepper the movie, though well-written, feel tacked on, like an executive producer read through the script and said it needed a more 420-friendly rewrite. This is an action movie, with some legitimately thrilling scenes and a script that is wry, clever, and a little too tongue-in-cheek for its own good. It doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but it certainly has its moments and shows a bright future for Max Landis.