The fun, flawed world of ‘American Ultra’8/26/2015
There’s a very subtle kind of genius going on in “American Ultra” — a film that obviously had high goals for itself and ultimately falls short — that has everything to do with the evolution of its two leads. Jessie Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a do-nothing stoner in a small West Virginia town who is beset by insecurities and flaws. Mike can barely function without weed and is forgetful and lethargic when on it. He deeply loves his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and plans a trip to Hawaii to propose to her but is too plagued by panic attacks to leave the city limits. He works the overnight shift at a grocery store and finds himself increasingly convinced that he is holding Phoebe back in her life.
Meanwhile, across the river in Langley, Virginia, Topher Grace plays Adrian Yates, a go-getting mid-level CIA boss who is looking to tie up some loose ends on a failed project — i.e., looking to kill some unneeded human assets.
One of which, of course, is poor Mike, a fact that he is blissfully unaware of until sympathetic CIA Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) walks into his store one evening and utters a line of code, intent on “activating” the latent secret agent hidden in his subconscious.
From this quick description — or from whatever you might have been able to glean from the trailer — “American Ultra” starts to look and sound a bit like “The Bourne Identity” meets “Dazed and Confused” and, frankly, the fact that the movie isn’t might be why some critics have been so quick to pan the results. But what sets “American Ultra” apart is that, while Agent Lasseter’s string of word salad (“Is that a lyric to something?” Mike blankly asks when she’s done) does activate Mike’s CIA training, it does not activate Mike.
Rather than being able to do all sorts of crazy spy shit, Mike can only react to things with crazy spy shit. He kills two men who are sabotaging his car — but only after they attack him first. Mike the spy is an efficient killing machine. Mike the person is still a very confused, slightly manic stoner. It is a juxtaposition that Eisenberg plays beautifully, giving Mike a kind of detached interest in everything his body is doing. When there are action sequences or fight scenes, Mike seems to be watching them right along with us and comes away with the same feeling of surprise.
The other working piece here is the much-maligned Stewart. Anyone who has written her off after the “Twilight” films is missing one of film’s rapidly developing talents. She was great in “Still Alice” and genuinely great in “The Clouds of Sils Maria.” Here she serves as the rational, placid counterpoint to Eisenberg’s panicked confusion.
Unfortunately, “American Ultra” is not as clever as it really wants to be. Roughly halfway through the film, Phoebe gets captured by the CIA and is largely neutered as a character for the rest of the film. Eisenberg, stripped of his most effective partner, is left with little to play off and nothing to genuinely react to, which makes much of the rest of the film listless and far too dependent on the remaining ensemble cast, of which only Walton Goggins really shines.
“American Ultra” is not high art. It does, however, have a huge amount of fun with itself, and its two leads are clearly enjoying themselves. You miss nothing from this film if you wait to pull it out of Redbox, but no matter how you get there, you will not regret giving it a look. CV