American Ultra Feature

What do you get when you mix “Bourne Identity,” “Rambo,” “Half-Baked” and “Kill Bill” together?


The answer to that question is you get the Jesse Eisenberg/Kristen Stewart vehicle “American Ultra.” And while “American Ultra” generates enough excitement, insane violence and flair to compare to those movies, it lacks their fun and originality. As the story goes, Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is an anxiety ridden stoner living in the middle of “Nowhere, USA, along with his patient and loving stoner girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart, in a surprisingly charming performance).

Mike’s life (or so called), up to this point consists of working at a convenience store and smoking much buddah. The only thing that keeps Mike from smoking his life away is his love for Phoebe. When Mike’s anxiety attack forces them to cancel their vacation trip to Hawaii, Mike, fearful of losing Phoebe, buys a ring and looks for the right time to propose to her. Unfortunately for Mike, finding that perfect moment may never arrive as his little world is about to be violently turned upside down.

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Cut to some covert government operations where we find out that the organization has a dossier on Mike and someone at the top has pegged him for extermination. One of the agents, Victoria Lasseter (the always classy Connie Britton), has a moment of conscious and decides to defy her bosses. She sneaks off to Mike’s town in hopes of “awakening him” to the danger ahead. One of the funnier moments in the movie is Mike’s first encounter with Lasseter. Dressed in her best spy coat and dark glasses, Mike suspiciously watches her watching him as she drifts around the store. He finally looks away and returns to his favorite pastime, drawing comic book type characters. When he looks up, he’s freaked out to see her standing in front of him at the counter. She starts reciting a series of trigger words and phrases to him that are supposed to “wake Mike up.” However, the words seemingly have no effect on Mike, and she leaves the store in frustration.

Later that night, while taking a food break, Mike notices someone tampering with his car. Thinking it’s just a couple of car thieves; he approaches the men, who turn out to be rogue government agents sent to liquidate him. When the men attack Mike, Lassiter’s trigger words begin to register in his brainwashed head. Armed with nothing more than a cup-o-soup and a spoon, Mike goes Rambo on the two agents, killing them.

Throughout the night, Mike finds himself violently facing down entire squadrons of elite assassins, yet clueless as to why they’re trying to murder him, and how he’s suddenly become a Super Ninja. It’s eventually revealed to Mike that he’s some ultra-violent, killing machine sleeper agent who the government had determined is too dangerous to be allowed to live.

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The film and its premise, as I mentioned are not original. However, the movie is enjoyable to watch, (that is if you’re not squeamish). “American Ultra” is peppered with some great performances, particularly Eisenberg’s Mike Howell, who comes off as believable (well, as believable as a sleeper cell stoner assassin can be) and charming.

As mentioned, Stewart’s performance was great. She thankfully loses some of her “Twilight” and
“Snow White and the Huntsman” iciness to give the movie some surprising romantic magic. It’s the chemistry between Mike and Phoebe that drives the film. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the relationship between the two in the first half of the film much more than I did in the second half. Without giving away too much of the ending, the reveal of Stewart’s character in my opinion, changed the purity of their relationship. In the beginning, she seems like the best girlfriend ever. But as in films of this genre, things are never what they seem. Unfortunately in this case, the twist causes the film to lose much of its initial magic between the two stoner lovers, which it never gets back.

Britton, along with the ubiquitous Bill Pullman (who plays Krueger, the head of this covert agency; CIA, FBI, S.H.I.E.L.D., who know?), give strong performances in small parts. However, Topher Grace’s performance as the over the top villain Adrian Yates became tiring mid-way through the film. By the end of the film, you’re just hoping Eisenberg will stuff a spoon in his throat too. John Leguizamo manages to add the only effective comedy relief to the movie as a ghetto slang-slinging drug and fireworks dealer named Rose.

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Director Nima Nourizadeh (whose only other credit is the teen comedy “Project X”) and writer Max Landis (“Chronicle”) manage to create a smooth, fast-paced film. Nourizadeh is smart enough to let his actors run with their parts and not over-direct, which is the film’s best asset. The cinematography is breathtaking, as is the editing. With so much gratuitous violence, the editors manage a masterful job of quick cuts, which distract from the violence while adding to the film’s stunning visual effects.

Overall, I liked “American Ultra,” which is being marketed as a dark comedy. However, while I got the dark, the comedy aspect left something to be desired. The film just wasn’t funny. Still, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, short (only 95 minutes) adrenaline charge, “American Ultra” just might satiate your palate.

Movie Rating: 7/10

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What did you think of “American Ultra”? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

-By Daryl K. Middlebrook