Movie review: ‘American Ultra’ high on laughs and action
– When we get to this point in the summer, the options at the cineplex get dicey. There’s the holdovers from earlier in the summer and then a glut of cheaper options aimed at capturing the dollars of those looking to beat the heat. On the surface, that seems like what you’d expect from “American Ultra.” It’s an R-rated comedy farce about a stoner who turns out to be a secret government weapon. He’s been activated and hilarity and explosions ensue.
All that’s true, but what surprised me was how into the story and characters I got as the movie unwound. “American Ultra” is a good way to beat the heat in the Dog Days of Summer, but’s it’s also surprisingly entertaining.
The film focuses on Mike (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s a clerk at a run-down convenience store in a small town in West Virginia. He’s passionate about weed, his cartoon drawings and his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). He wants to marry her, and he plans an elaborate trip to propose, but his paralyzing fear of leaving his small town gets the best of him and he feels stuck.
Meanwhile, at the CIA, disgraced agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) gets a mysterious phone call letting her know that one of her former covert
assets is about to be eliminated by her rival, Agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). The two argue, and soon Victoria heads to West Virginia.
She meets up with Mike at his work and delivers the code word phrase, but nothing happens. Soon, she gives up, but her words have a powerful effect on Mike. When Adrian’s team arrives to eliminate him, Mike springs into action and discovers a set of skills he never knew he possessed.
Soon, a battle breaks out across the sleepy little town and everyone’s life is changed as a result.
Eisenberg is a unique actor with a unique set of comedic talents and timing. He’s been great in dramas, but he’s suited to these “everyman” kind of comedies. It worked well for him in another sleeper action-comedy, “Zombieland,” and it serves him well with “American Ultra,” too.
He also pairs well with Stewart. The two starred opposite each other in the sleepy comedy “Adventureland” in 2009. That was a great film for both, and they bring that same easy chemistry to “American Ultra.” In fact, this feels like a perfect part for Stewart, an actress who’s been maligned because of her work in the “Twilight” series. When watching this, or her work opposite Julianne Moore in last year’s “Still Alice,” you can’t help but wonder if it was the writing and character that did Stewart a disservice with that series. She’s shown in subsequent roles that she can be a talented actress when she finds the right kind of role.
Written by Max Landis (“Chronicle”), “American Ultra” feels a little like an origin story. It’s also set up well to possibly lead to additional films — though the paltry box office numbers suggest that’s not likely. Director Nima Nourizadeh does a nice job of pacing the comedy and the action; and at just 95 minutes, “American Ultra” doesn’t wear out its welcome.
The film is also blessed with some great supporting performances. Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “VEEP”) is great as a conflicted CIA analyst drawn into this war and Walton Goggins, best known for his work on “Justified,” is great as one of the secret weapons employed by Adrian to eliminate Mike.
This isn’t a deep or complicated film, but it’s the perfect kind of action-comedy for the end of summer. It’s easy to follow, has interesting characters and provides a bit of cinematic fun. “American Ultra” has been rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content. Enter with caution.
Three stars out of four.