Romantic, hyper and amusing, American Ultra is a could-be cult classic. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and written by Max Landis (Chronicle), it’s a marijuana laced super-assassin story with Jesse Eisenberg flipping his hyper-articulate persona to play Mike. The town screw-up that is openly mocked by the police, Mike is the kind, uncomfortable twenty-something that hasn’t found a path to go down. He doodles, smokes pot and loves his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) with all of his heart. Mike is that guy who apologizes so much that it gets annoying.
Then it turns out he’s capable of taking out a dozen trained-killers with ease.
Unbeknownst to him, Mike is actually a part of a failed past CIA project that infused his mind, senses and the like with deadly skills. Mike is only triggered back into work when the former head of said project (Connie Britton) frets for his life. It turns out a yuppie upstart in the government (played with perfect smarminess by Topher Grace) is out to clean up old experiments, leaving Mike, Phoebe and a tiny chunk of West Virginia susceptible to an array of maniacs and murderers.
American Ultra won’t be loved by all, but its peculiar rhythms, casual mayhem and absurdities will click strongly with some. Nourizadeh’s mindset isn’t fried, rather it’s comfortably crazy. Shootouts between a bunch of drug-dealers debating the ethics of a fantasy football league invite and black-ops groups occur, as does a scene where Eisenberg’s freshly brainwashed Mike takes on two attackers with a spoon and boiling ramen noodles. The visual language is playful, with literal fireworks used as part of an attack plan. Still, the impact of the chaos is felt, as bruises, lacerations and lost teeth are readily apparent. It has a ball with this stuff in a manner that recalls Joe Cornish or Edgar Wright, if less elegant to the eye.
The script by Landis isn’t lampooning anything in a particular genre. Instead it is running with those tropes with an array of characters that wouldn’t normally be found within such a tale.
The whole things rides on the back of Eisenberg and Stewart, who are each rather sensational here. Though both actors have been accused of acting with specific quirks or traits, each come off as rather loose and free-spirited in American Ultra. Eisenberg finds laughs detailing the imagined stories of his comic creation “Apollo Ape,” all while sharing a nice moment of understanding and quiet with Stewart. She sees so much potential in her true love, yet truly understands why this man wants to live a meager life. The pair is sweet with one another, using that same easy-going aura that they shared in the underrated Adventureland. It would be worth watching for them alone. That the movie surrounding the twosome is a hoot is all the better reason to give it a whirl.