American Ultra takes a sweet, stoner romance and surgically grafts it onto an amped-up riff on The Bourne Identity. If that sounds jarring, it is – but it’s surprisingly clever in taking a joke premise and giving it layers, thanks to a smart script by Chronicle scribe Max Landis and a supremely talented cast.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), in Liman, West Virginia. The two are largely content to stay in Liman (presumably a hat tip to Bourne Identity director Doug Liman), in part because Mike has panic attacks whenever he attempts to leave town. It turns out, though, that Mike was part of a failed CIA operation called “Wise Man,” and hotshot Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) wants to make his temporary promotion permanent by wiping out the remnants of the program, which means killing Mike – who has no memory of being involved in the program. To protect Mike, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), the program’s former head, activates him. Unfortunately for Mike, he can’t remember his past when he’s activated – but his lethal abilities assert themselves perfectly. He has to find out about his past while protecting Phoebe and avoiding the growing number of troops sent in by Yates.
The mashing of genres generally works better than it should. Landis has experience mixing up genres, and director Nima Nourizadeh’s direction complements the script with a wide variety of shots and takes. The violence of the action sequences is over-the-top, reaching the point of complete lunacy. When met with Mike and (to a lesser degree) Phoebe’s laidback vibes, there’s a weird comic energy that’s produced. The only weak sequence, really, is the more straightforward action climax that finds Mike dispatching with souped-up bad guys inside a big-box store. Eisenberg is a great fit everywhere else, and his generally nervous energy really sells Mike as a paranoid stoner, but he seems ill-suited for the straight-up action scenes. And even then, it works in its own weird way.
Eisenberg is matched well with Stewart. Both actors, who normally seem more guarded with other actors, have a comfort with each other that makes them not only believable as a couple, but at a few points surprisingly sexy. The relationship between Mike and Phoebe provides American Ultra with a surprisingly sweet center, and the film is at its strongest when the two are paired together on screen. The smart casting choices extend beyond Eisenberg and Stewart, too. Grace is a smart choice for the antagonist, since he has a reputation, like Eisenberg, for playing assholes. Britton, meanwhile, gets to let loose more here than she has in the years since her Friday Night Lights stint made her a more notable actress.
Thanks in part to its mix of genres, American Ultra is not a film everyone will enjoy. Viewers with a high (heh) tolerance for over-the-top violence as well as stoner humor, though, will appreciate Mike’s insane evening. It’s a charming feature, at its core – viewers will just have to get through the insanity to get to it.