Directed by Nima Nourizadeh. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Walton Goggins, Connie Britton, Jim Klock, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, Nash Edgerton, Monique Ganderton, Teri Wyble, Michelle DeVito, Don Yesso, Christian Frazier, Michael Papajohn, Billy Slaughter, Christopher Heskey. Written by Max Landis.
Jesse Eisenberg is a “stoned cold killer” in American Ultra, a sleeper agent in rural America whose skills as a highly-trained assassin are so secretive that even he doesn’t know about them.
He’s Mike Howell, a deadbeat stoner who lives in Liman, West Virginia who is so scared of life he can’t even make good on a Hawaiian vacation where he has intended to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). He has a panic attack in the airport bathroom and misses their flight.
Mike works at a low-rent convenience store, and one day a mysterious stranger (played by Connie Britton) walks up to the counter and speaks some mumbo jumbo to him. He doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about, but he’s now been “activated,” and later on when a couple of goons show up to take him out, he instantly disposes of them using skills he never knew he had.
“I stabbed him in the neck with a spoon and his lungs exploded!” he tells Phoebe, who he calls in lieu of the police, fearing they might discover his stash at the crime scene.
The mysterious woman is Victoria Lasseter, a CIA agent in charge of the American Ultra program, who is informed in early scenes that CIA rival Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) is in charge of things and will be eliminating her assets, which include Mike.
So Lasseter activates Mike, Yates sends an army of goons into Liman, and the sleepy town is turned into a battleground a la First Blood.
The events of the film are easy enough to follow, and American Ultra has some inventive ideas – not in plotting, where the twists and turns are pretty predictable, but in the execution of its individual action scenes, many of which feature Eisenberg’s killer taking out baddies with everyday household products.
I really dig action sequences set in grocery stores or the like, and American Ultra features a pair of such scenes. There’s something familiar about the location – as opposed to the usual abandoned warehouse or factory – that allows us to identify more with the scene. We’ve tread these halls, and we know these cans of food and cleaning products that are now being used as distractions or deadly weapons. (My favorites: F/X 2, and the opening of Stallone’s Cobra, though those movies are no classics, either.)
But that’s where my enjoyment of American Ultra ends. While the story is easy enough to follow, like the recent Hitman: Agent 47, I had a huge amount of trouble with character motivation here. The surface is clear, but everything underneath is a mess.
What exactly is the point of the American Ultra program anyway? Why is the Topher Grace character killing all the agents, and why is he doing it in such a reckless way? Why does the Connie Britton character care so much about this one agent? And why does she activate him, rather than warning him about the situation in a way he can relate to, or taking him to a safe house?
Why do the characters played by Tony Hale and Bill Pullman react in the way they do? And why are we led, in both situations, to believe that these characters will behave differently, even though we know nothing about them?
What’s up with the relationship between the Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart characters, given what’s revealed about both of them during the course of the film? Why should we care about either of them, or whetehr they end up together?
How was Eisenberg’s deadbeat stoner recruited into this secretive and deadly program? And shouldn’t he at least look like he’s able to perform the violent acrobatics of his character onscreen? It’s a minor gripe, but it’s like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo taking legions of trained CIA professionals.
Because I had so much trouble understanding any of these characters or why they did what they did, there was a single character in the movie I ended up identifying with: Walton Goggins, who plays a mental patient-turned-super killer called Laugher. He does crazy stuff because he’s crazy, and that’s the one character motivation in the film that makes any sense.
While directors like Quentin Tarantino have tried to re-create the feeling of a grindhouse B-movie and ended up transcending the genre, the filmmakers behind American Ultra have come up with the real deal: sloppy and underwritten but fitfully entertaining, this one works about as well as your average 70s drive-in experience.
After American Ultra tanked at the US box office, writer Max Landis took to social media to bemoan the state of original ideas in Hollywood. He’s generally correct, but American Ultra is not our savoir; in the end, it’s as disposable as the latest Hitman flick.