Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
American Ultra could be described as a stoner mixture of The Bourne Identity, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Bonnie & Clyde. But it could also be credited as a blazingly original story that navigates multiple genres with relative ease, particularly thanks to its dramatically affecting lead performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. The film is from Nima Nourizadeh, whose previous effort was the abysmal Project X, but here he shows a stronger confidence and sense of purpose behind the camera. That’s attributed to his script from Max Landis, which is strikingly funny and satirical even as it spends plenty of time with its characters in order to make them human. I found the film oddly affecting and romantic, even as it shifted from one moment to the next as a violent B-movie to a comically weed-driven lounge affair. The film is simply satisfying because it tells a well-illustrated story full of character motivation, stoner logic, strong performances, and a morally honest yet depraved representation of violence.
The film focuses on Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a small-town stoner that works at a convenience store where seemingly no one goes. Nonetheless, he lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who has loved him for five years and spent many of her days acting as both his better half and his mother. One day, Mike encounters a weird woman in his store that turns out to be a member of the CIA, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). She, unbeknownst to him, activates him as part of a sleeper operation that the CIA had many years ago; the reason she needs to do this is because another agent, Adrian Yates, intends to kill Howell in order to take care of the last remaining operative from what was deemed a defunct program. But the Ultra program has worked, as Victoria argues, and her point is made as Mike can turn into a killing machine in an instant. Think of a MacGyver type, only he murders people with the things around him. The town starts to get bombarded with CIA operatives including some mental patients that have been trained to kill. If this doesn’t sound morally obtuse, then you may love these characters.
There’s a shocking sense of characters regretting their acts of violence on screen. Mike is the most obvious one, as his first act of violence comes out of nowhere and is played for laughs; the music starts playing high-octane as he goes through the motions, but afterwards it stops and he looks horrified at what he’s done. It’s comedic, but effective in terms of not reveling in violence. It keeps that throughline, usually having the mentally ill or evil characters loving violence while everyone else hates what they are doing. The film is twisted and simply funny when it comes to its core characters, with Mike in particular delivering a brilliant monologue on top of a car while stoned out of his mind. American Ultra is getting some unjust lashings from critics, although one thing is certain: the film is a tonal mess. It jumps between genres without much rhyme or reason, even if the story does work within all of these confines. I also think the aforementioned director and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain (whose previous work Zombieland this most closely resembles) lend a tremendous eye to the film. It’s a zippy stoner adventure with surprising heart, and that made it a whole lot better than expected.
Grade: ★★★½ (out of 5)