A small-town stoner named Mike (Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network) learns he's actually a lethally trained sleeper-agent after his CIA handlers decide to terminate his contract (and life.) Suddenly on the run with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, Twilight) the couple fight to stay alive while employing killer talents that Mike didn't even know he had. American Ultra may be a new spin on an old premise. It's also a stellar, entertaining action movie.
If you're having flashbacks to John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate, you're on the right track. Placed in small town America, Mike is part of a secret government experiment to create super-soldiers. Once a carefully worded trigger phrase is recited, the stoner becomes the soldier. He goes about his day to day life, blissfully unaware of what he's capable of doing with say... a spoon and a man's windpipe.
It's a shame the film was buried in late August. It's an oddly enjoyable summer romp, which owes far more to 80's action classics, such as Lethal Weapon, than to The Bourne Identity franchise to which it's been compared. Both the violence and dialogue go for broke, landing American Ultra with an appropriately hard R-rating. Perhaps the recent summer blockbuster fare had not prepared me for the numerous moments of extreme genre violence. The film has a wonderfully heartfelt set up, which allows the shift into action-mode to truly sneak up on you. We're not in PG-13 Marvel-land anymore...
Unlike a beloved film like Pineapple Express, the transition from normalcy to chaos is handled with utter restraint. Mike is stressing out about proposing marriage to Phoebe. He has the ring, but cannot find the right moment. When the bullets start to fly, each passing moment seems even less right to poor Mike. A delicate, but sweet scene early on involving the couple's planned vacation to Hawaii beautifully sets up the stakes.
Thankfully, there's also a genuine tenderness to the emotional stretches of American Ultra. The remainder of the film has an off kilter, aggressively strange tone that may turn off some viewers. It's a rather independently-spirited piece of work, dressed up as a potential blockbuster. Heads are blown off in one scene and heartfelt words are tearfully exchanged in another. The shifts in tone are constant, but never feel jarring.
Eisenberg and Stewart bring a profound emotional weight to their roles, elevating the material well beyond the shoot-em-up film genre. Once again, both actors prove they are capable of skillful, naturalistic performances when given the opportunity. Fittingly, the characters surrounding our leads are less than naturalistic. I was pleasantly surprised to learn the movie was not based on some existing graphic novel property, although screenwriter Max Landis (the underrated Chronicle) is indeed a confirmed fan of the medium. The world of American Ultra would fit nicely within comic book panels.
The fiendish cartoon character portrayed by John Leguizamo alone could draw the ire of PC-bloggers, with his garish, racially charged dialogue. He exists somewhere in between Gary Oldman's pimp in True Romance and James Franco's white boy rapper in Spring Breakers. An equally comic book-esque character, the Laugher (Walton Goggins, Django Unchained) is another lethally trained super soldier on Mike's trail, who giggles like a psychotic hyena as he enters each scene. As manically sketched a character as Jar Jar Binks, the Laugher is a wild experiment in tone that pays off in one of the film's most unexpected moments. Broad characters such as these would fail without the more down-to-earth leads to center the plot in narrative reality.
It would be impossible to write about American Ultra without also mentioning names such as Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen. Films like Clerks and the aforementioned True Romance and Pineapple Express cannot help but leap to mind. Like those earlier films, American Ultra works because we care about their characters, thanks to the careful hands of Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh (the forgettable Project X.) Thus, we also care when Mike and Phoebe get punched in the face or stabbed through the hand.
On the downside, Nourizadeh's direction often feels flat and uninspired. The film seems content to merely convey the action, without any attention to visual elegance. It works, but absolutely nothing more. Despite some wonderfully clever dialogue, several of Landis' characters sound remarkable similar to one another. Even the smarmy CIA boss (Topher Grace, That 70's Show) speaks in the same halting "like, er, um..." manner as our pot-smoking heroes. It's only a minor quibble, as following Chronicle, Landis' screenwriting voice is unique and shows excellent potential. He's quickly becoming a screenwriter to watch.
Refreshingly brutal and strikingly offbeat, American Ultra is good old fashioned, R-rated action fun.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.