Take the amnesiac spy from the Bourne franchise, throw him into the anarchic nihilism of Kick-Ass, add some romantic idealism and then bubble it all through the comedic sensibilities of Pineapple Express and you have something that approximates American Ultra. As entertaining as it is flawed, director Nima Nourizadeh’s film is sure to divide audiences with its haphazard mix of ultra-violence and heartfelt romance. A gleefully-belligerent experiment in style that thumbs its nose at your expectations.
Can a pair of hopeless romantics survive in a modern world consumed by security, surveillance, and sarcasm? Not if one of them is a merciless killing machine for the CIA! Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a well-meaning stoner who just wants to find the right moment to propose to his long-suffering girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Those plans seem permanently derailed when a mysterious woman (Connie Britton) starts whispering not-so-sweet nothings into Mike’s ear, activating his dormant CIA training protocols. Mike will need all of his deadly skills to survive the extermination order issued by Agent Yates (Topher Grace); an upwardly-mobile douchebag who’s determined to “clear the portfolio” of all CIA experimental training programs. Now bring on the bloodletting!
All of this ‘black-bag disavowed’ stuff is pretty standard issue, obviously, but the relationship between Mike and Phoebe helps American Ultra transcend an otherwise limited genre. This couple wants to live by their heart, but the world insists they use their fists, instead. For all of its flippant bravado and noise (and it is extremely noisy), American Ultra is unapologetically idealistic. This ‘love-will-conquer-all’ sincerity feels refreshingly quaint against the blood-stained backdrop.
In short, it’s quintessential Landis. In this case, that would be screenwriter Max Landis, who seems to have inherited his old man’s flare for the absurd. There are recognizable traces of the same macabre humor that made John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London such a cult staple in the ‘80s. It seems likely that American Ultra will enjoy a similar cult standing with modern teenagers. While Max’ script is littered with lazy vulgarity and obvious plot points, there are more than enough subtle nods and quirky ticks to compensate for these shortcomings. It’s a tribute to his writing chops that Landis gets more mileage out of soliloquies about puppy dogs and forlorn trees than he does from giggling assassins and gratuitous violence.
Director Nourizadeh wisely foregoes the darkly-comic violence until the film’s second half and allows Eisenberg and Stewart to do their thing in the opening act. We get a surprisingly-detailed picture of the “perfect fucked up couple.” Mike arranges an idyllic engagement retreat to Hawaii, only to have a panic attack in the airport restroom. It’s the type of incident that Phoebe has grown accustomed to forgiving over the years. We also get a look at Mike’s homemade comic books, which focus on the death-defying exploits of Apollo Ape. Like Apollo, Mike is nothing more than a lab experiment gone horribly awry. It’s this type of attention to thematic detail that will greatly extend the shelf-life of Nourizadeh’s film.
While these flourishes undoubtedly add to the flavor and texture of the story, they also make the overall tone of American Ultra a bit confusing at times. It neither rises to the level of unbridled hilarity nor sinks into the depths of chaotic delirium; it’s content to find its own bizarre chord in the middle. This is in stark contrast to 2015’s earlier spy-fest deconstruction, Kingsman: The Secret Service, which was so reference-laden that it had no identity of its own. You could argue that Landis and Nourizadeh sacrifice too much zaniness in order to stay grounded in reality. It’s this reality, however, that allows American Ultra to take more chances with its visuals and themes than most other spy yarns. Psychedelic freak-outs, jumbled timelines, and brutal action can peacefully co-exist because a human core holds everything together.
It’s this flawed humanity that makes Eisenberg and Stewart, seemingly miscast, the perfect choices for Mike and Phoebe. That they never feel comfortable in their roles as action heroes is entirely the point. Ironically, the one scene from American Ultra that fails completely (a tacked-on coda to set-up possible sequels) is the one scene in which Eisenberg and Stewart are playing actual secret agents. A solid supporting cast features a hilarious turn from John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and fireworks supplier, and Walton Goggins as a creepy killer in serious need of some orthodontics. Grace is suitably smarmy, though his mustache-twirling villain is a definite weak spot in the story. It would be nice to have a few more assassins with discernible personalities, but those elements are sacrificed to keep the pace flowing.
Expect American Ultra to be a deeply polarizing experience. Some viewers will love it on a fundamental level, while others will simply reach for their earplugs. Its uncompromising tone and surprising sincerity may seem like a mess, but it’s this messiness that makes Nima Nourizadeh’s film such a consistent delight. At its heart, this is the simple story of two hopeless romantics trying to live in a drone-filled world. For some folks, happiness just involves a bit more collateral damage.