On reflection I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I went to see American Ultra. When I mentioned to a friend that I’d gone, she said she’d seen an ad on TV and it looked like a cute movie about a boy trying to find the right time to propose to his girlfriend.
Let’s nip that right in the bud. If you’re going to American Ultra because you want a rom-com, put down the car keys right now, turn on your TV, scroll through your Netflix queue and look for something starring Jennifer Aniston. Otherwise you are in for the shock of your life.
This movie has Jesse Eisenberg playing Mike Howell, a stoner convenience store clerk. He lives in a backwater of West Virginia with his equally stoned-out girlfriend Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart. There is a thwarted marriage proposal in the movie’s first scene but it’s unlikely you’ll even remember it by the time you get to the second.
Here we learn that Mike was once a CIA agent, trained to be a human killing machine in an experimental program that, because of fatalities and another assorted problems, has been shut down. Mike’s memory was wiped clean and he was set down in this little hamlet with no recollection of his past, which he mistakenly assumes is because of the copious kilos of weed that he smokes.
As it turns out, back at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the decision is made to eradicate any trace of the aborted program … which means Mike must be “eliminated.” Topher Grace plays a whacked out CIA chief, only slightly to the right of Kim Jong-un, and the next thing you know, a fleet of pathologically scarred victims of the failed program are on their way to kill Mike.
And now the real American Ultra finally gets started. This is an incredibly violent film in which everybody is intent on killing everybody else in the bloodiest way possible—it’s just a few clotted hairs away from a snuff film.
Death by Spoon and a Yarn That Spins Tight
All of the characters, you see, have been through this CIA program which has (a) turned them into sociopaths and (b) taught them how to use anything at hand as a lethal weapon: a spoon, dust pan, Pot Noodles, a frying pan. Every single item finds itself eventually used to open a gushing wound on someone’s body … just in case the machine guns, Tasers, pistols, knives, and hand grenades haven’t done the trick. Whoever got the sales commission on the prop blood for this movie must now be living large in a gorgeous Caribbean vacation home.
As a rule I tend not to see movies of this kind. The violence doesn’t bother me; I just find it dull when a movie spends so much screen time on something so obviously fake. In this regard, then, American Ultra was, for me, an eye-popping experience. If you’re one of those people who plays first-person shooter video games, your mileage may vary.
And what’s really interesting is that I ended up enjoying American Ultra. Another reason I’m not a big fan of action movies is that usually the screenwriter substitutes violence for storytelling. But American Ultra, in its own bizarre way, is a cleverly written yarn which keeps you involved in the story throughout.
There’s that famous Johnny Carson line: “You gotta buy the bit to get the joke.” And yes, there is a certain amount of nonsense you’ve got to take on board to get into the movie. The methodology of the CIA program, the rather childish view of government bureaucracy, and the remarkable “coincidences” which help to keep the plot aloft all put a combined strain on credulity. And, too, there’s Eisenberg as a lethal killing machine. Really? I mean, the kid’s more adorable than a plush toy (and a pretty impressive actor to boot) but his most compelling talent is the intense intelligence he brings to his roles. I’m not sure the world was waiting to see him mutilate people with his bare hands. Conversely, though, maybe it’s that intelligence which makes his character so much more interesting than your standard action figure.
Which, possibly, is the key to American Ultra’s success. When you think about how dreadful a movie of this kind could have been, the fact that it’s several notches above your standard schlocky gore-fest is sheer relief.
No Fat, Just Lean and Mean Cookin’
And speaking of killing machines, director Nima Nourizadeh’s work is a textbook example of lethal, efficient purpose put together without an ounce of wasted fat. He directs with a certain ironic style and manages to keep up the momentum even when he includes extraneous moments of character business. The screenplay by Max Landis, is also ruthless when it comes to design. Landis, son of noted director John Landis, has crafted the well-oiled machine (thankfully leavened with genuine moments of humor) which Nourizadeh sets into motion.
As for the acting: once you get over the shock of seeing Eisenberg covered in his own and everybody else’s blood through most of the movie, you can appreciate the finely calibrated performance he turns in. Even inside his cannabis-baked affect, there’s always something interesting happening just behind his eyes. I know that it’s fashionable to dump on Kristen Stewart these days, but come on—she only starred in those vampire movies, she didn’t write them—and I liked what she does here, turning in a low-key but intriguing performance which ultimately support the large changes the character goes through.
Ethel Merman used to say “Always be careful of the scenery. You never know who’s been chewing it before you.” And that couldn’t more aptly describe the supporting performances in this movie. They must have needed to shoot Topher Grace with a tranquilizer gun after his scenes, because he starts with the dial at 11 and by the end of the movie, has pretty much twisted the knob clean off. Needless to say, I loved it. Connie Britton and Tony Hale also indulge in a bit of scenery chewing, although they’re thrown into the shade by John Leguizamo playing a coked-up, small-time drug and arms dealer in a manner that’s simply hysterical.
Though far from a great film, American Ultra turns out to be a bloody (very bloody) good time.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh-based writer and critic.