MOVIE REVIEW: ‘American Ultra’ Blends Lots of Movie Tropes Together to Create a Very Different Kind of Film
Tired of the same old summer fare? Romantic comedies, superheroes, animated animals getting into trouble, and stuff blowing up – they can all be found en masse at your local Cineplex every year during the warmer months. American Ultra, swooping in towards the end of the “popcorn” season, is a movie that may feel both very familiar but oddly foreign at the same time; the film features everything on the list in the previous sentence, but is presented in a highly unorthodox manner. The result is an experience that feels very unique, but definitely won’t ring everyone’s bell.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike, a “typical American stoner” – if such a blatant stereotype truly exists – living in a small town and living a relatively unremarkable life. He’s shacked up with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristin Stewart), works a boring-ass job at the local so-empty-it’s-eerie convenience store, and suffers from interspersed moments of slack-jawed ennui, surprising real-world insight, and crippling panic-attack fear of leaving his hometown. The latter hits home particularly hard when Mike and Phoebe are at the airport, preparing to leave for a trip to Hawai’i – a trip that has big significance for Mike, as he’s planning on asking Phoebe to marry him while visiting the tropical paradise. Because of Mike’s “condition,” they don’t get to go, and as they head home disappointed, the audience gets to see the first glimpses of the couple’s “true” relationship. It’s a dynamic I can’t really delve too far into without ending up in Spoiler Country, but suffice it to say that Phoebe is mind-bogglingly patient with and understanding of Mike’s issues.
The main premise of the plot is quickly revealed when the action cuts to CIA Headquarters: overbearing and overconfident new department head Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has made it his personal mission to eliminate the now-closed “Ultra” program: a convoluted “sleeper agent” initiative, and surprise! Mike is the Ultra being targeted. The Ultra program’s former director, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), doesn’t take too kindly to this, so she sets out to “activate” Mike in order to save him. She’s successful, to a degree; Mike’s killer training starts to fight for space in his drug-addled brain, and sporadic action sequences ensue when Yates’ “assets” descend on the small town to eliminate the spy-turned-stoner.
The primary driving force of the movie is also one of its biggest problems: Lasseter says that she wants to save Mike because it’s “not right” to condemn an innocent American citizen to die for no reason… but within the first few scenes of the CIA’s pursuit of Mike, multiple people – both other operatives and innocent civilians – are casually killed and tossed aside by the plot driving forward. It feels like a thin excuse to push the action, the assertion of “let’s save this guy even if it means that lots of others die.”
The movie’s true enjoyment lives in the execution of the scenes themselves. If you can push past the plot issue outlined above, you’ll be rewarded with some surprisingly cool action scenes, lots of highly entertaining comedic moments, and genuinely pleasing character interactions. For as much as Mike comes across as “super-spy” guy when he needs to be, his “default setting” is still the low-key, gentle loafer who likes to draw cartoon animals in space and worries about holding his girlfriend back from bigger things. When he does bust out the action, though, it comes hard and fast – even in the few initial scenes where his sleeper training is rather hilariously fighting to come out from his perpetual marijuana haze.
The characters play off each other very effectively, even if a few do wander into typecasted versions of themselves by the end of the film. I’m still not sold on Stewart as a “leading lady,” but to be very honest, this could just be some serious Twilight bias continually clouding my judgement. Eisenberg pretty much nails his character’s range. Britton and Grace are the biggest perpetrators of falling into character stereotypes, but whether that is their blame as actors or if the fault lies with screenwriter Max Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh is for you to decide. Rounding out the cast are truly enjoyable turns from John Leguizamo as a good-guy drug dealer (sounds like an oxymoron, I know, but it mostly works), Bill Pullman as CIA top brass, and Tony Hale as a wishy-washy agent who can’t figure out which side of the fight he wants to be on.
Do you have to see American Ultra in theaters? No. Is it a fun “popcorn flick” that you’d probably enjoy, if you’re under 50 and don’t mind a decent amount of drug-related jokes? Yes. Is it the best-ever movie about drug use interconnectedly woven with secret government projects that will make you question the ideals of freedom and free will in a democratic society that some say is becoming increasingly autocratic and repressive to its citizens? Uh… what was the question again, man?