Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Bloody Violence, Language throughout, Drug Use and some Sexual Content
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
Written by: Max Landis
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman & Tony Hale
Sometimes, you walk into a movie knowing precisely what you’re going to get. That was my exact situation with AMERICAN ULTRA. I bought my ticket expecting a batshit insane action-comedy and that’s exactly what I received. Though it’s definitely not for everyone (especially gauging its current low percentage on Rotten Tomatoes), this crazy stoner adventure has a likely chance of going down as a future cult classic. I could see it easily resting next to REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA and SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. The film is far from perfect and has its problems, but I found AMERICAN ULTRA to be a blast of entertaining mayhem.
Mike Howell lives a fairly uninteresting existence. He’s a stoner loser who’s going nowhere and suffers from a crippling number of irrational phobias. The best part of Mike’s life is his long-time stoner girlfriend, Phoebe. One night, a mysterious woman walks into Mike’s workplace and speaks gibberish to him that sound like bad song lyrics. It turns out that these “lyrics” were actually activation code words and Mike is far from your typical stoner. With lots of bad people coming to kill him, Mike finds himself suddenly endowed with a set of deadly skills that he never knew he had. To make it through the night alive, he’ll need some help from Phoebe and a variety of household appliances turned deadly weapons (including a spoon and a dust-pan). Think BOURNE IDENTITY with a BIG LEBOWSKI attitude.
AMERICAN ULTRA lives up to its expectations as both a stoner comedy and a crazy action flick, but it also serves as an unconventional romance too. The film is entertaining the whole way through. The screenplay also delivers on what audiences going to a movie about an idiotic stoner sleeper agent would expect to see. The cinematography looks great and uses a lot of distinct stylistic touches. I couldn’t help but admire how the film looked as a whole. There’s a constant fast-pace through the first and third acts, but the film drags during the middle. This could be because the middle section has less action than the rest of the story, but I attribute most of the blame to exposition-heavy conversations (enough to temporarily suck me out of the story).
Jesse Eisenberg is usually hit or miss for me. His geeky shtick can be annoying or charming, depending on the material he’s given. Here, Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the dumb, unconventional action hero. His nervous antics lead to many laughs as his predicament goes from bad to worse. Kristen Stewart, playing Phoebe, manages to be a better romantic lead with far more emotion than many past roles of her career. Connie Briton, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman are side characters who mainly serve to drive the plot forward. Even though their characters are plot devices, they make the most of the screen time they’ve been given. Though Topher Grace may have been woefully miscast as a certain super villain in a well-known comic book franchise, he certainly fits the part of asshole pencil-pusher turned radical villain in this film. His smarmy line delivery and pompous facial expressions make you want to punch him during every one of his scenes. So, a job well done on his part. More intimidating than Grace is Walton Goggins as the simultaneously scary and funny Laugher (one of Grace’s main henchmen). John Leguizamo’s brief turn as a drug dealer is also hilarious, even tough he’s underused.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how awesome the action scenes are in AMERICAN ULTRA. I was shocked at how well-executed these sequences were. Aside from using enough blood to fill a Tarantino shootout, ULTRA gets ultra-creative (sorry, I had to say that) in its violence. We see normal household objects transformed into lethal weapons and these crazy combinations never get old. A sequence in the final third also comes off like the a cross between the KINGSMAN‘s now famous (or infamous) church scene and the final showdown in THE EQUALIZER. Blood splatters all over the place, but never to a sickening degree. None of this is meant to be taken seriously and the movie uses that to its comedic advantage.
Slight pacing issues aside, I really enjoyed AMERICAN ULTRA. This is precisely the sort of film that might very well become a cult classic in the near future. The combination of a stoner comedy and a crazy action flick are undeniably appealing for certain crowds. It helps that fun performances and palpable creativity are also thrown into the mix as well. AMERICAN ULTRA is a stoner-centric romantic-action-comedy that delivers on its strange premise.