Wild stoner spy comedy is a mashed-up head trip
Starring Jesse Eisenberg & Kristen Stewart
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is an underachiever pothead, working the overnight shift at a mini-mart and doodling comics in his sketchbook. Mike doesn’t care much about anything, except Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), his his live-in girlfriend, who’s pining for the getaway trip to Hawaii that Mike’s airport panic attacks always seem to derail.
Nothing much happens in their sleepy little hamlet of Liman, W.Va. Nothing, that is, until Mike looks up into the sky one night and American Ultra kicks into to crazy high gear with deep government ops, lunatic hit men and two young lovers caught in the middle.
Everything revolves around Mike, who’s more complicated and skilled than he realizes—or remembers. And Phoebe turns out to have a surprise or two of her own, too.
Soon, we’re up to speed on what Mike pieces together slowly: He’s a high-level government “experiment” genetically programmed with deep, long-dormant classified intelligence and lethal self-defense abilities. And higher-ups in the program are worried that he might go rouge, or haywire—or, most problematic of all, expose their body-and-brain games.
It’s a weird, wacked-out, sometimes wonderful mash-up of stoner comedy, spy-conspiracy spoof and hyper-violent teen-romance fantasy—think of Eisenberg and Stewart’s characters several years down the road from their 2009 collaboration Adventureland, caught between The Bourne Conspiracy and Pineapple Express, and spattered with Oliver Stone’s bloody overspray from Natural Born Killers.
Connie Britton from TV’s Nashville plays a government operative determined to help Mike evade the efforts of her devious counterpart (Topher Grace), who has marked him for elimination. Walter Goggins from Justified is a cackling killer, Laugher, sent—along with an army of other exterminators—to take him out. The versatile John Leguizamo trades his shirt for a torso swathed in fake tattoos as a local lowlife. Bill Pullman is a Washington suit none too happy that one of his “lab rats” is making such a big, noisy mess in the white-trash hills of West Virginia.
Director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only previous movie was the teen-debauchery flop Planet X (2012), sets up the crazy story, but has a hard time getting it out of the grindhouse. He stages some sock-o action pieces, however, and one of the coolest things is watching Eisenberg, typically cast as an obsessive-compulsive nerd, break out his license to kill. He’s deadly with a spoon, a cup of instant noodles or a package of frozen hamburgers, even if he doesn’t realize exactly how, or why. The humor is dark, the body count high and the blood abundant. But there’s a tenderness and a love story behind the mayhem, too, and one final surprise—when Mike and his relentless stalker, Laugher, finally come to blows—will hit you hard in a soft place, in a way you won’t see coming.
“Do you feel sick?” Phoebe asks Mike at one point. “No, I feel kind of amazing,” he says, reveling in his newfound abilities. In the way-out American Ultra, those two extremes—sick and amazing—somehow don’t seem so very far apart.
—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine