American Ultra wants to be Jason Bourne riding the Pineapple Express – an action/adventure stoner comedy. You don’t usually think of high powered weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and a high body count when you think “slackers.” The weird thing is American Ultra comes pretty close to making it work.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living in a backwater West Virginia town. He’s been hassled by the police so much that they have a first-name, semi-friendly relationship, so it’s helpful that his girlfriend Phoebe Larsen (Kristen Stewart) works for a bail bond company. Mike has a raging case of agoraphobia that hits him if he ever leaves town. A planned trip to Hawaii so he can propose to Phoebe ends with him physically sick in the airport bathroom. Instead they return to town where Mike manages a mini-market and draws comic books starring a gorilla.
At CIA Headquarters in Langley, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), an agent who’d been in charge of a top-secret project to turn losers into lethal operatives, receives a coded call. A former agent in the project has been determined to be a security threat and is scheduled for termination – Mike Howell, whose memories have been suppressed. Rather than leave him a sitting duck for a former underling (Topher Grace) who now outranks her, Victoria heads to West Virginia to activate Mike’s memories to give him a fighting chance.
Ultra boasts an exceptional cast. In addition to those mentioned above, you have Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as a semi-psycho hitman named Laugher, John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug supplier, and Bill Pullman as a shadowy person in the CIA hierarchy. The screenplay was written by Max Landis, the son of John (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), so outlandish comedy may be a genetic trait. Max has established his own bona fides with the exceptional Chronicle in 2012. The plot is familiar, since aspects were taken from the Bourne series and Pineapple Express, though it is executed with energy.
Director Nima Nourizadeh has done one other feature, the found-footage wild party Project X from 3 years ago. The scenes he’s shot are set against rust belt bleakness, but he doesn’t give you a sense of the town. It’s like there’s no one else there except for those directly involved in the plot, so the mayhem seems unattached to reality. On the other hand, he works well with his cast. You do believe Eisenberg could be a secret agent.
The major surprise of the film is in Kristen Stewart’s performance. She was lampooned for having almost no range of expression in the Twilight series – and rightfully so. However, starting with The Runaways and building with Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria, along with American Ultra, she’s developing into an effective actress. Sometimes early success is the high-water mark for a young actor, and it sadly goes downhill from there both on and off the screen, such as with Lindsay Lohan. It’s rarer for one to have great success at first and then develop into a good actress and build a career. It looks like Stewart is accomplishing that.
If you don’t have high expectations for American Ultra, it manages to pull off its bipolar nature, at least for its 95 minute running time. It didn’t cost much to make – a lean 12 million – so it should recoup its cost plus extra. It would count as a modern B picture that’s not a first string entertainment but does have its pleasures.