You’ve heard before that you should never judge a book by its cover. I just learned this week that I should also never judge a stoner by his long hair and flannel. I wasn’t sure what to expect with American Ultra. I only knew that it was about a guy who was lazily coasting through life when he finds out that he’s really a CIA operative. The resultant film is one of those strange mixtures of action and comedy that gets both genres right and makes you want to see it again. The best comparison that I can make is Pineapple Express. Laughs, pot and guns all come together in American Ultra for a memorable experience that will make you believe that a pothead can move fast enough to win a fight.
American Ultra is not from the filmmakers whom you would expect. Director Nima Nourizadeh previously made Project X, the successful low-budget film about a teen’s out-of-control birthday party. That kind of manic energy is evident here, but there also has to be a great story to go with it for it to work. Otherwise, it’s an extended music video. Writer Max Landis got his break with the hit teen film Chronicle, which I consider one of the best films about humans gaining super powers. These two talents meshed well and produced a movie that’s got as many layers, fun sequences and unique elements that you wish that it was a bit longer just to see how these characters would react in some other situations.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) are a perfect couple. They get high, have sex, enjoy life and mesh on a level that other couples never experience. They dream of getting out of their dead-end small town in West Virginia. After a failed attempt at a vacation, they return to the familiar — Mike at a convenience store and Phoebe at a bail bondsman’s business. What Mike doesn’t know is that he’s a CIA agent deep undercover. He’s the result of a government experiment to create the ultimate secret agent — the “Ultra” in the title refers to that type of CIA program — and the CIA guy calling the shots named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) wants him eliminated. Fortunately, the agent who trained and placed Mike thinks that he still has potential. Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) does what she can to help Mike and Phoebe while their world gets ripped apart by Yates’s agents.
Eisenberg almost always entertains and surprises me. He’s actually better when he inhabits a character like this instead of his usual persona and deliberate way of speaking as evidenced in The Squid and the Whale and The Social Network. Stewart is at her best here, too. She doesn’t play with her hair constantly, and her character is about as far as you can get from her Bella Swan in the Twilight movies as her role in Welcome to the Rileys. Eisenberg and Stewart played a couple before in Adventureland, and they are equally convincing here as a pair with a much more established relationship. The rest of the cast is just as strong. Grace creates a bad guy whom you love to hate, and Walton Goggins has a substantial role as a mental patient called Laugher who’s sent by Yates to kill Mike and Phoebe. John Leguizamo sometimes comes up with the strangest characters, and his drug/fireworks/whatever supplier named Rose ranks up there with his gangster language and paranoia.
The fun of American Ultra is watching Mike discover skills and knowledge that he never knew that he had. By activating Mike, Lasseter sees whether he can live up to his training and save his life in the process as he tries to protect himself and Phoebe. Mike is nothing but innovative in his hand-to-hand fights and all-out attacks. A walk through the cookware section of a department store is like a soldier picking out ammunition from an armory. The action scenes are not sloppy at all, and they’re all mostly believable, too, with no times that I remember where moves or narrow escapes just don’t make sense. In fact, Mike, Phoebe and most of their attackers like Laugher get pretty banged up in the process. The comedy is similarly impressive with Eisenberg’s reactions, dialogue and facial expressions good for a bunch of laughs on their own, including his doubts that he’s human based on his dexterity. The film dabbles in some wackiness, too, as shown in some of Rose’s conversations with his bodyguards. Once Mike gets into the groove with his fight moves, it’s both exhilarating and funny to watch him take down combatants just as it was both breathtaking and humorous to watch the people fly and run over the tops of houses in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
There are plenty of nice little touches that take American Ultra from being an action comedy to a movie with more substance. There’s a scene with mirrors that’s a clever use of perspective, and a room with black lights results in an eerie encounter. Mike has artistic skills as well, and he likes to draw the adventures of an imagined chimp. His animation comes to life later on in the credits for an unexpected burst of colorful sequences. Indeed, my only complaint is that the movie begins near the end of the story and rewinds to the beginning. This is a tired technique that not only ruins some sequences if you watch the rewind closely enough but also shows an actor whose appearance is probably meant to be a surprise cameo when he actually shows up in the normal sequence of events. I expect American Ultra to find a cult following over the coming years, but even if it doesn’t, it unfolds like a classic right now.