Imagine Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne character, but as a stoner and you’ve pretty much got the premise of Director Nima Mourizadeh’s American Ultra. However, the film falters when it can’t decide if it wants to be a funny Bourne Identity or a straight up spoof like Spy.
American Ultra centers on Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner who works at a convenience store, draws comic strips that he’ll never share with anyone, and has a loving and attractive girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who seems to be completely out of his league. Mike also has crippling panic attacks, especially when he tries to leave town. This little hiccup ruins a planned trip to Hawaii for the couple and is the start of all the trouble that comes down the pike throughout the film. It turns out that Mike is really a sleeper agent for a CIA program called Wise Man. Basically the government turned these guys into unstoppable killing machines, a la Jason Bourne. Unfortunately, a rival program—Tough Guy—is going into effect and the agent who runs it, Yates (Topher Grace), wants to wipe away all vestiges of Wise Man. Taking out Mike Howell will be the perfect test run for Tough Guy. The agent who ran Wise Man before it was mothballed, Lasseter (Connie Britton), gets wind of Yates’ plan and she sets out to activate Mike and warn him. From there, hilarity and over the top violence ensues as Yates pulls out all the stops to take Mike down.
American Ultra is a very funny film. The screenplay was written by Max Landis, who has proven to be pretty funny online and such. Much of the violence is over the top and hilarious if you’re into that. It comes right up to the line of a film like Machete, but never goes that absurd. So, I had a ball watching this film, but it may not be for everyone. The twists that come along are also a little telegraphed, but I won’t reveal them here. My biggest issue with the film, though, is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. There is definitely a heart at the center of this film—a scene between Mike and Laugher (Walton Goggins) at the end of the film is particularly touching—but the film is constantly jumping the line between action-comedy and flat out spoof, making it feel uneven. In a film like Paul Feig’s Spy, all the characters are supposed to be absurd and that’s the charm of the film, whereas in the Bourne movies, everyone is deadly serious. American Ultra seems to want to be both things and it just doesn’t work in parts. Mike’s status as a stoner makes things funny, but he and Phoebe are pretty much normal people. The CIA agents are played as normal at first, but they become cartoonishly incompetent throughout the film and that juxtaposition with how they are presented at the start doesn’t jibe. For instance, in one scene Yates calls in a drone strike…on an American town…to take out one guy. This would never happen in a million years and it stretches the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Also, Yates is generally completely over the top and out of place in this film, even with its gory violence. It’s never totally clear why he feels he has to eliminate Mike and the zeal with which he approaches this task is unbelievable. One could argue that painting the CIA as incompetent is part of the satire, but to make that work, the characters have to be believable. When they become cartoons, their incompetence can be dismissed because they no longer feel like real characters.
The cast does a great job with this one. Eisenberg and Stewart pick up the same nice chemistry they established in 2009’s Adventureland and are totally believable as a couple even though Phoebe is way out of Mike’s league. Eisenberg really sells the struggle Mike has coming out of his marijuana haze and realizing his latent assassin skills, while Stewart also does a really fine job here—I’m being purposefully vague about her. John Leguizamo makes a funny appearance as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale is his usual hilarious self as Lasseter’s former assistant. Though I didn’t like how Grace’s character was written, he does a really good job with the role. It’s not his fault the part was written to be completely unbelievable.
Overall, if you’re interested in seeing a funny spin on the spy/assassin genre, then American Ultra might be for you. The script probably could have used some tightening here and there, but it’s definitely an enjoyable film. If you’re not into hyper-violence, though, you may want to pass.