“American Ultra,” a comedic conspiracy thriller squinted at through a hazy, cannabis cloud, is a surprisingly entertaining take on the familiar spy/fi movie. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, a likeable enough young stoner, contendedly underemployed at a small town convenience store, living with his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart), whose life starts to unravel when it turns out he’s actually a government agent whose memory has been erased. The title derives from the urban-legendary CIA “MK Ultra” mind control experiments, always a favorite of diehard conspiracy theorists. In any event, locked inside Mike’s somewhat addled brain is an encyclopedic knowledge of how to kill people with everyday items.
The movie mainly takes place in one night during which Mike’s small town is virtually overrun by assassins. Why CIA suit Topher Grace has decided that Mike is a liability and has to be assassinated in the first place is one piece of internal logic that writer Max Landis’ (“Chronicle”) clever script never quite clarifies, but the movie barrels along briskly enough that the audience is likely to let it slide. The movie, whose logline could almost be “‘Total Recall’ and ‘First Blood’ get shaken up in a bag with ‘Pineapple Express,’” emphasizes the often bloody action over the comedy, and which is frequently at the expense of the CIA.
Which brings to mind a question. Has the CIA EVER been the good guy in a movie…? Even in the conservative-minded Jack Ryan movies, there’s always someone not to be trusted. And for decades, going back to “Three Days of the Condor,” the CIA has often been flat-out the villain. In any event, it goes without saying that audiences swallow CIA misbehavior on the screen without any necessary suspension of disbelief.
The essentially one-joke premise would be sunk if Eisenberg didn’t nail this one. Fortunately, he hits it out of the park. The chameleon-like thirtysomething believably looks and plays younger than his own age here, and deftly handles his character’s sudden shifts from neurotic, panicky stoner to stoned Jason Bourne in plaid flannel. Director Nima Nourizadeh effectively establishes Mike’s undemanding life in the opening reel, which makes it all the more startling when he suddenly and gruesomely kills two hitmen in his convenience store’s parking lot with a spoon and a cup of hot Ramen noodles.
“Zombieland” star Eisenberg has enduring goodwill with the fanboy audience. Kristen Stewart is another matter altogether. But Stewart, now firmly in the post-“Twilight” phase of her career, is a delightful surprise here, eschewing pouty/sulky adolescent posturing in favor of a multi-layered, likeable and even ass-kicking performance. Her character, Phoebe, is more than just a damsel-in-distress girlfriend, and Stewart can hold her own in a fight scene. Connie Britton plays it straight as a CIA desk agent gone rogue to try to thwart Topher Grace’s evil plans, while mystery man Bill Pullman channels his inner Alec Baldwin. John Leguizamo plays Mike’s dealer mainly for laughs, as does Walton Goggins as the insufferable but aptly named assassin Laugher.
The cinematography by Michael Bonvillain (TV’s “Alias,” Fringe” and “Lost,” and “Zombieland”) is first-rate, and the action sequences are as well-executed as any number of action movies with larger budgets (the fight coordinator/stunt coordinator was Robert Alonzo, a fast-rising stunt professional who’s already done work on “Star Trek,” “Jack Reacher,” “Mission: Impossible III,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and the upcoming “Deadpool”).
Nourizadeh, following up the teen party comedy “Project X,” adroitly handles this cross-pollinated hybrid as though there was nothing at all odd about the material. Drug humor is followed by blood-spraying shootouts that would be at home in a Sam Peckinpah or John Woo movie, yet the movie has a strangely consistent tone throughout. There’s no sugar coating of violence in “American Ultra;” no discrete trickle of blood on the corner of the hero’s mouth. Characters who have been in fights look beat up, bruised and bloodied. Is that funny? No. But there’s something pleasantly reminiscent of a seventies’ exploitation movie going on here, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it unspools with a straight face. It’s difficult to imagine this amiable bloodbath spawning a franchise, but it delivers the goods in a brisk hour and a half and you won’t be able to say you were bored.