The action comedy is something that’s so frequently botched we go into them with massively lowered expectations. So to see American Ultra get so much right, and successfully dodge so many pitfalls along the way, is a huge and unexpected thrill for the end of the summer.
This is a cool movie. It’s a fun movie. It should inspire must-have alternate posters and tumblr GIFs and repeated viewings and arguments. It’s full of, “you’ve got to see this” moments and characters who feel like they were pulled straight out of a comic book. It's not meant for everyone, but creative movies — and especially creatively violent movies — rarely are. And make no mistake, American Ultra is violent, but its sharp edges are dulled somewhat by handing the action over to a stammering Jesse Eisenberg.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a clerk at a local convenience store whose primary traits are a reliance on weed, and a crippling case of anxiety. He's got a girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and he'd like to get out of town with her and see the world, but he's stricken with nausea-inducing panic attacks whenever he tries to leave his sleepy little West Virginian town. It turns out he's so much more than a stoner in a dead-end job, though. He's basically a slacker Jason Bourne — a CIA-created field operative capable of becoming a one-man-army when activated with a secret passphrase. When one overly ambitious CIA bigwig (Topher Grace) decides he's too dangerous to be left alive, a rival agent (Connie Britton) steps in to save him by finding him and speaking the secret passphrase that activates him.
So far, that's all pretty pedestrian stuff for the action genre, but the beauty of American Ultra is definitely in the details. In a scene that borrows from two Bourne Identity fights, the bumbling Mike taps into his potential when he's unexpectedly confronted with two toughs messing with his car. They pull a knife and a gun on him, and Mike kills them so quickly he barely has time to register what's happened. He looks around, drops his blood-covered spoon to the ground, and calls his girlfriend while fending off a panic attack. The fights have that sort of superhuman quality we've come to associate with cinematic badasses like Bourne and Wolverine and Jet Li. The joke here, of course, is that this time Eisenberg is the muscle.
From that parking lot, things just keep escalating. The plot is totally built around the idea of keeping the action coming fast and hard, barely giving the audience a breather in the movie's brisk 95-minute run-time. It's to writer Max Landis' credit that not only do the jokes land, but the deliberately cartoonish characters keep the tone in that fun-time realm of the not-quite-real where everyone's free to laugh at some gruesome action sequences.
It helps that Eisenberg and Stewart have such great chemistry together. That chemistry helped make Adventureland better than anyone expected, and the same is true here. Eisenberg's high-strung nerves mix surprisingly well with Stewart's dry half-lidded deliveries, helping to sell some of the movie's more ridiculous moments. One of the better supporting roles goes to bad guy standby Walton Goggins who plays the ridiculous "Laugher," a giggling CIA hitman who's long since lost his mind and who's destined to be a favorite among the movie's fans. He manages to squeeze some pathos out of a strange villain who deserves a spot on that alternate poster.
Landis is carving out a niche for himself with quirky takes on popular genres. He previously made a splash with his script for the Josh Trank-directed Chronicle, but while Trank's new movie, Fantastic Four, is a dud, Landis seems like he's here to stay and might even be the American answer to Edgar Wright. Without a huge amount of hype, American Ultra seems destined for cult hit status and many repeat viewings. It's not for everyone, but if it's for you, then you'll get it right away.