With a barrage of spy films this summer, director Nima Nourizadeh’s ‘American Ultra’ is a genre-bending surprise. At first it comes off as a cross between ‘The Bourne Identity’ meets ‘ Pineapple Express’ but turns into one of the most romantic films of the year. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart starred in the 2009 dramedy ‘Adventureland’ together. They reunite as a slacker couple and the chemistry between them is undeniable. The script by Max Landis (Chronicle) is tight and fast-paced. The action is crisp like a cult graphic novel but the over-the-top violence is reminiscent of a Tarantino film. It’s an odd end-of-summer action/comedy thriller that is lifted to entertaining heights by the charming performances of Eisenberg and Stewart.
The plot is clever and straightforward. Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a long-haired stoner that works at a convenience store in a remote part of West Virginia. Mike is an intelligent guy that just cannot seem to get his life in order. He tries to get enough nerve to propose to his pinked-hair girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Stewart) but even screws that up when he gets bad panic attacks. As Mike kicks it with Phoebe toking on a joint, he gazes at a car wreck and tragically compares himself to the tree and her to the car stopped by it. It’s a tender moment as we discover how much Phoebe cares for Mike and sees real potential in the guy that lacks self-esteem. This could have easily been a typical girlfriend role but once again Stewart brings so many dimensions to her performance. They feel like a genuine young couple in love.
The twist of the story is that Mike is not just a hapless stoner. He is actually a highly trained government assassin. The funny aspect of the premise is that Mike has no idea of his specialized skills. When a woman in a trench coat and sunglasses (a delightful Connie Britton) enters the Cash ‘n’ Carry store, she proceeds to tell him a cryptic message, “Chariot progressive. Listen. Mandlebrot set is in motion. Echo Choir has been breached, we are fielding the ball.” As she mysteriously exits the store without any explanation, Mike is so bemused he steps outside to spark a joint. As he stands in front of the store, he sees two men tampering with his car. As they aggressively approach him, Mike uses a hot Cup O’ Noodles and spoon to defuse the situation. It’s a hilarious scene because Mike has no clue what the men wanted from him and why all of a sudden he has the skills of a ninja.
Without giving too much away, there is an intra-agency struggle between a career-driven CIA agent named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) and his predecessor Victoria Lasseter (Britton). As a cost-cutting measure for the agency, Yates wants to eliminate Mike from a now defunct program of sleeper spies. Lasseter breaks protocol to help save Mike from an untimely demise. Eisenberg is terrific as the unlikely hero. He brings a neurotic intellectual quality to the role like he did in ‘The Squid and the Whale’ and ‘The Social Network.’ Stewart is equally convincing as his girlfriend because she accepts him with all of his faults. Since the Twilight film saga has ended, Stewart has really grown into a serious actress taking on challenging indie roles in ‘Still Alice’ and ‘Clouds of Sils Maria.’ Her latest role lets her show off her unexpected comedy chops.
Screenwriter Max Landis’ clever script pokes fun at the spy movie genre. This offbeat comedy/action thriller is light and fun entertainment as we bid adieu to the summer movie season. Check out the official ‘American Ultra’ trailer https://youtu.be/q9QnZYevO7Y.