Dog’s Movie House: “American Ultra” Entertaining, Sometimes Uneven Mix Of Action And Comedy!
Howdy Folks! It’s The Kendog!
Stoner comedies have always had their place in the cinema. Every since Cheech and Chong first lit up in the 70’s there has been an audience for movies with protagonists who spend most of their screen time high. Many of these comedies have a difficult time combining the broad comedic strokes involved with the stoner lifestyle with well-rounded and believable characters. Add an action component to the mix and the equation becomes even more complex. Fortunately, “American Ultra” the new film from “Chronicle” scripter Max Landis, manages to, for the most part, balance all of these balls in the air to a very entertaining effect.
“American Ultra” tells the tale of Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a perpetually stoned young man in a small West Virginia town. He has an undemanding lifestyle involving weed, working at a rundown convenience store, drawing an unpublished comic strip about an ape that goes into space, and spending time with his understanding girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Mike’s life changes dramatically when he discovers he’s a sleeper agent for the CIA, part of a program shut down by its supervisor, agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). Lasseter comes to Mike’s town and activates him in an attempt to save his life, as Lasseter’s replacement in the CIA, a paper pushing kiss-ass named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to kill Howell to prop up his own black ops program. Once activated, Howell, when threatened, becomes a killing machine, but it will take more than newfound survival instincts to find out the truth about his life and his purpose.
“American Ultra” is one of those movies upon which your enjoyment of the film will depend on your ability to vibe with the tone of the piece. Like “Pulp Fiction” and others, “American Ultra” switches back and forth between broad comedy and sometimes shocking violence. Now don’t get me wrong; “American Ultra” isn’t even close in quality to “Pulp Fiction” but the style is similar in terms of tone and it works surprisingly well. It’s certainly a more convincing spy movie than the new Hitman movie that was just released.
Although “American Ultra” was directed by Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”), this is clearly screenwriter Max Landis’ film. His fingerprints are all over it, from the rapid fire dialogue to the tonal shifts in the story. Yet despite the odd combination of comedy and violence the narrative in “American Ultra” is surprisingly consistent. Most of the narrative threads weave themselves into a mostly coherent tapestry that makes for a crackling spy thriller as well as a laugh-out loud comedy.
“American Ultra” benefits from some great performances. Eisenberg is perfect as the mostly clueless Mike, a man who wonders early on whether his life has become a dead end and whether he deserves the unconditional love of his girlfriend. As the film continues, Mike grows as a character while retaining some of the same hilarious traits one often associates with characters who spend much of their time onscreen in a state of marijuana-influenced euphoria. Stewart matches Eisenberg step for step as Phoebe, the long suffering girlfriend who is not as perfect as she seems. Stewart gets a lot of crap for the “Twilight” films, but given a, you know, coherent script, she is actually capable of doing very good work, and Max Landis gives her a meaty role upon which to chew. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is solid, continuing from their time together in the underrated film “Adventureland.”
The film also gets great supporting performances from Britton as Mike’s handler, Walton Goggins as the crazy killer known as Laugher, Bill Pullman as a CIA bigwig, and John Leguizamo as Rose, the drug dealing friend of Mike’s. The only guy who gets the short shrift as far as performances are concerned is Topher Grace’s Adrian Yates. Grace attacks the role with gusto, but his character is so unpleasant and so snarky that he clashes with the natural rhythms of the other characters in the movie. It’s a minor misstep from Landis and it’s not a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s definitely worth noting, and it keeps “American Ultra” from becoming a classic in this particular genre.
I have to give credit to Nourizadeh for creating some very effective action sequences and Eisenberg is equally impressive in pulling them off. Not known as a physical specimen, Eisenberg manages to make for a believable action hero despite his unassuming build. HIs fight with Goggins in the discount store near the end of the film is one of the better fights on film. It doesn’t match the dizzying heights of anything in “John Wick” or “Mad Max” but for this type of film, the action is actually rather well done.
Overall, “American Ultra” maybe one of the best stoner action films I’ve ever scene (yes, it’s better than “Pineapple Express) and although that sentence sounds strange even to my own ears, it doesn’t make the statement any less true. If you can vibe with this particular type of film, “American Ultra’ is for you. 3 1/2 Out Of 5 on Kendog’s Barkometer! So Sayeth The Kendog!
“American Ultra” is Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.