American Ultra is billed as a stoner spy movie, but it’s more like a visceral, quirky action-comedy than a stoner movie.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) are a stoner couple living in middle-of nowhere America. The two live quiet lives as underachieving stoners, but they’re in love. Mike also suffers from panic attacks that keep them from being able to leave town. Still, Phoebe has an endless supply of support for him, and he wants to ask her to marry him. What Mike doesn’t know is that he’s a sleeper agent from a CIA program known as “Ultra”. What he also doesn’t know is that he’s been marked as a liability by an up-and-coming yuppie CIA officer, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace).
The woman who was in charge of the, now defunct, Ultra program is Victoria Lassetter (Connie Britton). She’s informed, by an anonymous source, that Mike is going to be put down by Yates and agents from his “Tough Guy” program. Unlike the Ultra program, that was designed to give 3rd strike misdemeanor offenders another chance to avoid prison, the Tough Guy program recruited psychopaths and turned them into brainwashed killers. Lassetter finds Mike first and tries to activate him so that he can protect himself. However, years of drug use have presumably dulled the effects of his programming. Mike is activated, but neither he or Lassetter have any idea that it’s happened because his personality stays exactly the same. Lassetter leaves Mike, assuming he’ll be killed, but Mike ends up killing two agents that come after him.
The deaths alert Yates that Mike has been activated and he decides to lock the town down. As Yates and his Tough Guys descend on Mike, he finds out that he can do more things than he ever imagined. As Mike, Lassetter and Phoebe fight to keep themselves safe from Yates, Mike struggles to understand what’s happened to him. After uncovering the secrets surrounding his new abilities he has to face off in a climactic showdown with Yates and a team of his Tough Guy assassins.
On IMDB, American Ultra is described as, “A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.” However, that might make you think that this is going to be a stoner movie like Dazed and Confused or Pineapple Express. If I had to describe it in terms of other movies, I’d say it’s like a combination of the Bourne Trilogy and Pineapple Express with some of the pulp/comic book elements of Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kick Ass. However, American Ultra is very much its own unique kind of movie. It does borrow tropes from stoner movies, spy movies and sleeper agent / amnesia movies but it puts them together in a way that makes it hard to describe this movie in terms of any other movie, despite being composed of familiar parts. That uniqueness is likely the result of this being an original story written by Max Landis. In a season filled with superhero movies and movies based on other intellectual properties, that’s definitely refreshing.
While the concept is original and it sounds cool, it is also a relatively simple and broad concept. There’s no unforeseen plot twists or mind-blowing story telling devices in this movie. Because of that, this movie needs to be supported by its other facets. Visual effects, dialogue, individual and group performances, all of these come together and form a perfectly complimentary set of elements. Even though Landis’ name will be the one generally associated with this movie, it’s really a great job by director Nima Nourizadeh in bringing this idea together. The movie has a great look and some really creatively done action scenes. The only thing that I felt was kind of off was the consistency of the fight scenes. Some of them are really smooth and comically violent, but there are also some that feel a little clumsy and clunky. Still, it’s a minor issue with a movie that’s almost surprisingly well constructed given how relatively sparse it feels. I say that it feels sparse mostly because this movie has the feel of a story that has a lot of things going on in the background that wouldn’t have fit into the runtime of the movie.
The other bright point of this movie is its assembled cast. They deliver pitch perfect performances in the movie. It starts with Eisenberg and Stewart, who make a really great couple in both their normal moments and their crazy moments. Even though Eisenberg’s portrayal of the fidgety, unsure, stoner was great, it was Stewart’s performance that really stood out to me. Even though the movie doesn’t go into a ton of detail with her, it gives you enough information to realize how much is going on with her. As a character, Phoebe is supportive, aggressive, defiant and ultimately, very strong throughout the movie. The dialogue/chemistry between Stewart and Eisenberg is what really carried this movie from beginning to end. It seems like their love story shouldn’t really fit into this movie, but it does and it works for me. In between, I also enjoyed the over the top performances from Topher Grace and John Leguizamo, who plays the small part of Rose; Mike’s drug dealer. These two are probably going to be a bit of an acquired taste for viewers because of just how ridiculous they are. I thought them just being ridiculous added a great flavor to the movie, but they could also be described as one dimensional characters.
I would actually say that that’s kind of the way I would describe this entire movie. It’s going to be something that’s not for everyone. It’s not a movie that’s going to blow your mind with any one aspect of the movie. However, there’s lots of really strong facets of the movie that come together in a way that makes for a pretty good movie and one that I’d actually like to see a sequel to (probably won’t happen though). This movie might not do well in theaters, but this is the kind of movie that feels like the kind of thing that would hang around on TV and cable stations for years to come. I think it’s because there’s ultimately very little that’s objectionable about this movie. It’s an original story. It’s funny. It’s got a sweet romance story in it. It’s got some graphic comic book style violence in it. And, ultimately, it’s a feel good-kind of story the way that an old comic book story arc would be.
- Great combined performance between Eisenberg and Stewart
- Quirky and fun action scenes
- Some comedic, over the top performances from supporting characters
- It's an original story
- Quality of the action, comedy and pacing fluctuates at times during the movie