American Ultra | Nima Nourizadeh | August 21, 2015
It’s a routine life for stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) in small-town Liman, West Virginia. He works at a Cash ‘n Carry convenience store, his supportive and tolerant live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) works at a bail bondsman office, and he can’t seem to leave the area without suffering vomit-inducing panic attacks. Then one day, a shady woman approaches him on the job, says some weird phrases, and leaves. Unbeknownst to him, she’s Victoria Lassiter (Connie Britton), a CIA agent and the head of the Wise Man program, and he’s a sleeper agent who’s just been activated … and a CIA task force of Tough Guy agents spearheaded by go-getter and self-starter (and misogynist) Yates (Topher Grace) is out to eliminate him. And Mike’s killed two agent-type guys in his store parking lot with a Cup of Noodles and a spoon. Mike’s day just went from bad to worse.
American Ultra is director Nima Nourizadeh’s (Project X) second feature film, along with writer Max Landis (Chronicle). And, frankly, it shows. Tonally, the hour-and-a-half film jumps back and forth between stoner comedy and wannabe Bourne-esque spy movie. There’s nothing cinematically that stands out, apart from a most likely stitched-together one-take fight/chase sequence in a bulk goods store.
However, the acting talent recruited for American Ultra is unexpectedly good. Jesse Eisenberg has believable chemistry with Kristen Stewart (their second feature together after Adventureland). What amounts to cameos from John Leguizamo and Lavell Crawford are oddly amusing, along with psychotic Tough Guy agent Laugher (Walton Goggins). And the CIA higher-ups (Britton, Grace, Tony Hale as Victoria’s office back-up Pete Douglas, and surprise Bill Pullman as Kruger, another superior) are refreshingly real, despite fitting into tropes. Granted, Victoria fights to be taken seriously, Yates is a brown-noser, and Pete isn’t a joke or stereotype.
American Ultra isn’t a down-and-out bad film, but it struggles to find its footing. Still, seeing Stoner Eisenberg pre-Lex Luthor take down countless other trained Tough Guy agents is oddly enjoyable – especially some of the MacGuyver methods he employs.