There were a few logical expectations going into American Ultra. First, that this movie will likely be looking to accomplish a success similar to the previous pot-head romp Pineapple Express (2008) as well as re-capture the comedic and indie wunderkind coupling of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart from their 2009 hit Adventureland. After seeing the film, however, it became immediately clear that director Nima Nourizadeh’s (Project X) vision has gone far beyond these expectations as he presents audiences with a completely fresh take on the actors’ chemistry, the use of drugs as a comedic tool, and the scope of the action-comedy genre.
American Ultra follows Mike Howell (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) who together live a quiet stoner lifestyle in a small West Virginia town – that is until Mike is activated as a CIA sleeper agent. This sets off a series of events for which he and Phoebe must sober up and get violent to save themselves from being hunted down by certain agency officials who want him exterminated.
From a story standpoint, American Ultra manages to combine elements from several genres to include action, comedy, drama, and romance as well as other subgenres such as the drug comedy – assuming that this is now a classifiable subgenre. Screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) manages a genre-bending feat here. The film begins with a somber tone, showing Mike and Phoebe clearly happy in love, yet in a relationship beginning to feel the strain of what seems to be Mike’s inability to move forward, whether that be because of his drug habits or just a flaw in his character.
The use of weed contributes to the drama of the opening scenes and also smoothly transitions to become a comedic tool once Mike is activated by his former sleeper agent operation director, played by Connie Britton (TV’s Friday Night Lights). This makes for a series of humorous scenes in which a high Mike suddenly transforms into an expertly trained operative with abilities to take down any foe with something as simple as a spoon. He is clearly not the most obvious choice for a government agent; aside from the fact that he should be hindered by his drug haze, he is also just a genuinely kind and trusting person without any killer instinct whatsoever, but herein lies the film’s perfectly fitting comedic subtlety. This type of unassuming humor is tailor-made for Eisenberg and he unsurprisingly delivers his comedy with effortless finesse.
The comedy isn’t all subtle, however. The film delivers plenty of loud and in-your-face humor from several characters including Topher Grace (TV’s That 70s Show) as an obnoxious young hot shot CIA director who is hunting Mike down, as well as Mike’s often inappropriate yet well-meaning drug dealer- played by a perpetually shirtless and tatted-up John Leguizamo (Ice Age). These two foiled honchos provide the film with most of the classic laugh-out-loud comedy without making caricatures of their roles.
In terms of action, Nourizadeh uses stylized techniques that keep balance with both the overt and casual comedy. Unexpectedly, there is heavy Tarantino-esque gore that would normally seem out of place next to the natural awkwardness of Eisenberg, yet it plays nicely into the idea that this could all be part of his drug trip with its subtle psychedelic and cartoonish bright red blood splatters, decapitations, and quick blink and you’ll miss it camera cuts.
The main female characters (Stewart and Britton) provide another major win for the film. Phoebe at first seems to be a typical girlfriend on the fringes of her boyfriend’s exciting storyline, however, just as things are not what they seem with the clouded-over Mike, Phoebe also ends up having a lot more agency and ass-kicking ability than expected. Their romance actually plays a significant role in the action plot and the two are able to work together as equals. Britton’s character on the other hand, a demoted former operations director attempting to save her experiment (Mike) from extermination, is probably the film’s most unexpected high point (pun not intended). She goes on a rogue mission to help Mike, and does so in her demure agency work clothes, suggesting her character is not necessarily field-ready. Regardless, she never breaks a sweat and her sophistication is never compromised for the sake of humor which in itself makes her just as subtle of a comedic force as Eisenberg.
While generally spot-on in terms of story and character throughout, the film does falter in a couple small yet noticeable areas. On a minor note, Emmy-winner Tony Hale (HBO’s Veep) makes an appearance as a CIA lackey who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time or comedic material to work with. It was particularly disappointing to see such an outstanding comedic actor improperly utilized. In terms of story, the entire cause for antagonism against Mike – that he has been trying (but failing due to a hard-wired intricacy in the sleeper agent program) to leave town, prompting Grace’s Agent Yates to call for his assassination – ends up feeling a bit forced and fabricated. The drug storyline, while providing integral character background and comedy in the first half of the film, ends up losing some steam and I found myself forgetting of its existence as a plot element within the thick of the action storyline.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
American Ultra rides a balanced line between understated indie comedy and its classic slapstick counterpart, while integrating elements of drama, romance, and drug culture. There is never a forced moment which can be owed to the seamless performances of the entire cast, as well as Landis’ well-rounded script, and Nourizadeh’s ability to employ meticulous direction to a whirlwind of ideas and tones. While the film has several plots converging at once in an action-packed environment, there were understandably some hiccups and overlooked elements, but American Ultra ultimately delivers a solid and innovative comedy that should keep audiences entertained throughout.