A film review by Craig J. Koban August 29, 2015


2015, R, 96 mins.


Kristen Stewart as Phoebe  /  Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell  /  Topher Grace as Adrian Yates  /  Tony Hale as Agent Petey Douglas  /  John Leguizamo as Rose  /  Walton Goggins as Laugher  /  Connie Britton as Victoria Lasseter  /  Bill Pullman as Krueger

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh  /  Written by Max Landis

AMERICAN ULTRA is a movie that’s simultaneously trying to be multiple movies. 

Sometimes the divergent tones and genres presented here coalesce relatively well, but other times the film can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a Jason Bourne-esque espionage flick, an  action adventure film, a B-grade grindhouse exploitation thriller, a love story, a stoner/slacker comedy of errors…or all of these very things.  There’s no doubt that Max Landis’ (writer of CHRONICLE) screenplay has a jubilant appetite to entertain us by literally throwing everything but the kitchen sink, so to speak, at the screen.  You can sense his enthusiasm for the underlining premise in AMERICAN ULTRA, but what’s lacking, I think, is some screenwriting discipline. 

The film begins modestly enough…that is until the ape shit lunacy of the story’s subsequent acts kick into overdrive.  Jesse Eisenberg stars a Mike Howell, a quintessential small town loser that spends most of his days scribbling comic book characters in his notepads, working behind a register at a nearby Cash ‘n’ Carry convenience store (one so dilapidated and low-rent that no one ever appears to shop there), and culminates his evenings by getting high off of weed with his live-in girlfriend Phoebe (Eisenberg’s ADVENTURELAND co-star Kristin Stewart).  Despite the fact that Mike, for what it’s worth, is on a slow burn downward spiral with no real career or life plan in place, Phoebe still unconditionally loves the lug…even after he has a serious panic attack that prevents him from boarding an airplane with her on a long awaited trip to Hawaii.  Prospects for this dude’s future are grim, but somehow…he and Phoebe seem like an inseparable pair with a future together. 



Fate, of course, steps in for Mike in a truly profound manner one night at the convenience store.  A strange woman in sunglasses and a trenchcoat appears (Connie Britton) walks up to his counter and speaks what sounds like military call-sign gobbledygook.  She repeats the same seemingly indecipherable mantra multiple times to Mike, which he casually brushes off as the rants of a deranged customer.  Later on during that same evening Mike discovers two shadowy figures huddled outside the store tampering with his car.  The men are armed and quickly attack Mike after he verbally confronts them…but Mike manages to instantly and easily kill both men with the spoon he was using to eat his Cup O’ Noodles. 

Hmmmm….okay.  Just what the hell is going on here? 

Now, clearly Mike – as far as his outward appearance and demeanor are concerned – is not a lethal killer that could rival any limitlessly dexterous super spy in the world.  Yet, how was he able to systematically eradicate these assailants so simply and with such little fuss?  Well, it appears that Mike has been an unwitting subject of a top secret CIA project to train ordinary young men to become extremely effective assassins on subliminal cue.  Most of the test subjects failed, whereas Mike – unknown to him, seeing as he has a form of amnesia from ever remembering his covert training – is actually one that succeeded.  The woman that “activated” him in the convenience store, Victoria, is actually Mike’s handler and hopes to protect him from governmental forces that now see him as a violent and unstable threat that must be taken out.  CIA midlevel manager Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) leads the charge to find and eliminate Mike as quickly as possible, but seeing as Mike can be triggered to respond with an inordinate amount of deadly force at anytime to protect himself and his loved ones, apprehending him proves to be difficult for the increasingly agitated Yates. 

Unlike its advertising campaign (which, by the way, dished out on much of the particulars of the plot that I just described, which makes my relaying of it non-spoilery), AMERICAN ULTRA is not the goofy and rambunctious stoner fuelled action comedy that I was expecting.  That’s kind of a compliment.  The film is a bit more grounded and sincere with its characters from the outset.  Unfortunately, the film spends a bit too much time perhaps on introductions, which leads to a somewhat lethargic first act.  However, when AMERICAN ULTRA opens up and vastly accelerates its pacing in terms of showcasing some breakneck, bone crunching, and artery spewing carnage (it's remarkably and surprisingly gory) then the overall film feels like it has been jumpstarted.  Director Nima Nourizadeh (PROJECT X) imbues the film with a hyper kinetic visual style that’s not too overpoweringly aggressive on the senses, but nevertheless gives AMERICAN ULTRA a much-needed propulsive edge.  He displays great aptitude in handling many of the viscerally charged action sequences while getting positively playful with color and design in quieter moments (a detour for Mike and Phoebe in the black lighted exercise room of their drug dealing friend – played by John Lequizamo – is a prime example of the film’s hallucinatory visual style at times). 

The performance in AMERICAN ULTRA are also thanklessly decent, which is no easy task considering the sheer craziness that transpires around these characters.  Eisenberg and Stewart display the same sort of unforced repartee and chemistry that they evoked previously in ADVENTURELAND; they feel like a credible, relatable and likeable pair of lovers, and I especially liked the off kiltered casting of Eisenberg, perhaps not everyone’s idea of front-lining leading man/action film.  Britton, an underrated actress, brings a level of earnest toughness and empowerment to her governmental agent that may or may not be in over her head.  Topher Grace overplays and hams it up to, some would say, potentially distracting levels here, but there’s no questioning his innately strong abilities for playing sniveling and unnerving weasels with the best of them.  He’s the kind of loathsome antagonist that you want to see get ultimate comeuppance from the heroes…and in as bloody of a manner as possible; Grace makes it very easy to detest him in the film. 

Ultimately, though, AMERICAN ULTRA is just too hyper caffeinated for its own good while attempting to be too many things at once.  The film contains an obviously clever and unique premise, but it seems to miss real opportunities at fully exploring it while maintaining overall tonal cohesion.  Too much of AMERICAN ULTRA feels uneven and half baked (stoner pun unintended) and, for the most part, very little effort is made at satirizing and/or mocking the conventions of the spy films it's emulating throughout its sparse 96 minutes.  Equally exacerbating is a would-be shocking plot twist that can be seen from a proverbial mile away, not to mention an ending that feels a bit too conventionally laid out considering the unconventionality of the entire film’s narrative.  AMERICAN ULTRA is slickly packaged, snappily paced, subversively funny and intensely action packed at times, but it’s also somewhat hollow and lacks a clear-cut identity and game plan. 

  H O M E