Release dates can help us adjust our expectations. Movies released around the holidays arrive with high expectations – December and new Star Wars cannot happen fast enough – while the end of August is a relatively more modest period. In those terms, American Ultra is a success: directed by Nima Nourizadeh, this is a film that knows exactly what it is, never aspiring for more. It also happens to be smart and funny, anchored by two strong lead performances.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike, a stoner in West Virginia with dead-end retail job who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Mike and Phoebe love each other – he thinks she’s the best thing in his life, while she tolerates his bullshit – and they don’t really bother anyone else. Mike has few memories before Phoebe, and he means it literally: we learn that he’s a former CIA superspy with a made-up identity. An ambitious Agency functionary (Topher Grace) plans to kill Mike, so a rival agent (Connie Britton) travels to West Virginia to “activate” him. So when assassins come for Howell, he dispatches them easily with a spoon and a bowel of ramen. Mike’s newfound skills confuse him, yet he does not have time to think since more and more killers descend on the town. He looks for solace the only place can he think of: the home of his drug dealer (a scene-stealing John Leguizamo), yet the deadly spies anticipate his every move.
The most impressive thing about American Ultra is how many genres it drifts between. There are moments of comedy, action, heartbreak, and intrigue. Nourizadeh, who previously directed the dubious found footage film Project X, has no problem with the abrupt changes in the screenplay by Max Landis. In fact, the shifts are his strength: by juxtaposing a character-building moment alongside brutal violence, American Ultra amplifies the feeling of both. The approach also puts us in Mike’s headspace: we laugh while we’re reeling from an action scene, not exactly sure how to take either, except to keep plodding ahead. At a crisp ninety-three minutes, the script scarcely barrels forward so we don’t exactly have time to think.
The key to the movie’s success are Eisenberg and Stewart, who have genuine chemistry, so Mike and Phoebe’s relationship is plausible even if their situation is far from it. The early scenes feature Mike apologizing like it’s a nervous tic, which is smart shorthand to develop the dynamic between them. For her part, Phoebe is forgiving and tender since she plainly recognizes Mike’s aching love for her. When the action starts, their mutual fierce protection adds a self-righteous edge to the violence. The other major force is the CIA, and Landis depicts it with a mix of respect and cruelty. The supporting cast, which also includes Tony Hale and Walton Goggins, all struggle with their identity within the Agency’s framework, giving the film an ethical center. If American Ultra has any weakness, it reconciles this in a way that’s a little too tidy, especially given the mayhem that preceded it.
“Mayhem” is the right word for this material since Landis has Mike kill with whatever makeshift weapons he happens to have at his disposal. American Ultra includes a long take in a mini-Walmart-type store where everything from a shovel to kitchenware serves as a weapon. It’s a shrewd way to highlight Mike’s inventiveness, and it works because those stores are everywhere in West Virginia. A couple years ago I spent a weekend in that state with some friends, and we had no cellular service thanks to the NSA station nearby. I thought about that while I was watching American Ultra, and maybe what’s what inspired Landis, too. Next time I’m there, I know I’ll look at the retail workers a little more suspiciously and hope that, for now anyway, they are not so wild and wonderful.