I knew nothing about American Ultra going into the screening beyond the fact that Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart were in it. I’d seen/read two interviews with them promoting the film, but in neither were the details of Ultra explained. I’d seen no trailers and read no reviews, so all I had to go on was a movie poster I’d seen.
I expected a bad stoner romantic comedy.
If you know as little as I do about American Ultra and want to experience an enjoyably fun “not bad” movie that is perfect for weekend viewing on Netflix one day, I encourage you to skip the rest of this review, because half the fun in American Ultra is the joy of discovering not only what genre movie it is, but the bizarre cast that that pops up.
Walton Goggins is in this, you guys! He plays a psychotic, brainwashed assassin escaped from a mental institution and he laughs like a hysterical hyena. That right there is worth an iTunes rental alone, but there’s also Connie Britton, Tony Hale, and Topher Grace, playing the role he was born to play: The douchebag villain (like Venom, without the costume).
As it turns out, American Ultra is not a stoner romantic comedy, so much as it’s the stoner Bourne, and before you scoff at the notion that Jesse Eisenberg could play a Bourne-type character, recall his handiwork with zombies in Zombieland. Ultra shares much of the same sensibilities as that movie, only instead of being good with the baseball bat, Eisenberg’s character is adept at killing CIA assassins with convenient-store grocery items.
Here’s a clip to demonstrate:
From screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle), American Ultra is about a loserish stoner guy, Mike (Eisenberg) and his slightly more put together girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart). Mike is an oblivious convenient-store clerk with a mess of phobias who wants nothing more than to propose to his girlfriend and live out the rest of his life high on his couch. What Mike doesn’t realize, however, is that he’s an agent of the CIA who has been brainwashed and trained as an assassin. However, after the operation proves unsuccessful, a CIA bureaucrat played by Topher Grace decides to end the program and wipe the slate, which means killing Mike.
The program’s chief, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), has other ideas in mind. She sneaks into town and “activates” the brainwashed Mike, so that when the CIA agents come to town to take him out, he finds himself taking out assassins in defense of himself. He’s kind of like Chuck, if Chuck were a stoner instead of a geek, while Stewart is his stoner Yvonne Strahovski. That’s not a bad premise, really.
It works, for the most part, as long as your expectations remain in check. It’s mostly and hour and a half cat-and-mouse chase with a lot more bullets and explosives than you might associate with a Kristen Stewart film, which is part of expectation-subverting fun. It calls to mind 30 Minutes or Less, the Eisenberg/Danny McBride film from a few years back: It’s not great, but it’s as “not bad” as you can get without technically being “good,” and in late August, you can’t expect more than that from the multiplexes.