Directed by Nima Nourizadeh, written by Max Landis
Sometimes when you bring together two disparate influences in an odd little brew you get something fresh. For the most part, that’s what’s happened here. It’s clumsy in places, but it entertains as the world’s first stoner comedy/action thriller.
American Ultra is being marketed on its action comedy beats, and sure, there are a few laughs, but at heart it’s really a romance, heavier on the violent set-pieces. The love story, between Jesse Eisenberg’s Mike and Kristen Stewart’s Phoebe, is really what makes it fun. And caring about the couple allows a certain forgiveness of a lot of the movie’s sillier plot detours.
Those detours take us alongside The Bourne Identity except in this case the amnesiac assassin is chronic. Mike is a stoned sleeper agent—though the picture neglects to explain why it is he should hole up in smalltown Virginia. Lots of Russian spies in the Norfolk area? There’s a lot of other stuff the film neglects to explain, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.
Mike’s biggest problem seems to be he’s prone to panic attacks, especially when he tries to leave town. And he’d love to propose to Phoebe, but it never seems to be the right moment.
The stuff between them is sweet, and the movie gives us enough of the two of them together to get a sense of their self-medicated but adorable love, and enough for us to have something to care about when the outrageous happens, which it does and often. I’d have watched a straight-ahead comedy with Mike and Phoebe dealing with, say, going to a wedding, taking a road trip, or starting a business. They could have roped in John Leguizamo, here playing Mike’s dealer, to come with them. He’s a little OTT, but amusing.
Once again Kristen Stewart impresses, the scattered but slightly more together one of the lovers, but one who has her own secret, naturally. And Eisenberg continues to choose parts that suit his gawky persona, and I appreciate that there’s room in Hollywood for his leading man niche.
About those things the movie doesn’t bother to explain: Mike’s got killer abilities that get triggered by a former associate (Connie Britton) looking to protect him from Yates (Topher Grace) , an asshole in the CIA who wants to kill him. Why Yates is going to such trouble, aside from his baked-in assholishness, isn’t terribly clear. And how Mike got these abilities, not clear at all. When Bill Pullman finally shows up as some kind of CIA bossman, his reason for even being in the movie doesn’t make a lot of sense. Plot-wise, it’s a genuine muddle, and not in the commonly good way with spy thrillers that go out of their way to be obtuse but in the way a lazy screenwriter thinking because this is a comedy he can glaze over some stuff.
That said, I liked enough of what Max (son of director John) Landis does here as far as the spy action goes to still recommend it. It does manage to build on the cliches of the genre, and, I should mention, in a very violent way, too. Things get pretty bloody late in the running, and Mike has the habit of using household implements, like spoons, as murder weapons. But none of that would have made the movie appealing without the charm of the leads.
I was just thinking, American Ultra might the evil twin of The Man From UNCLE. In the recent 60s spy pastiche. In that movie the two leads weren’t very interesting but the rest of the movie—the cast, production values, style—more than made up for it. Here it’s the movie that’s a little slap-dash, but the fate of the leads keep you interested. And for an undemanding late-summer entertainment, that’s not the worst way to spend 90 minutes.
Dude. That theory has a kind of stoned logic vibe to it, right?