“A ‘sleeper agent’ is suddenly called back into action after a long hiatus, realizes he’s been brainwashed, and heads off to kill people with their newfound skills.” Does this premise sound familiar? It should. It dates back (at least) as far as The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and you may also remember it from popular action flicks like The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) and The Bourne Identity (2002). So here it is again, only this time it’s an aimless stoner who discovers that his brain has been monkeyed with before he heads off to beat the hell out of his enemies. Call it The Marijuana Candidate, The Long Toke Goodnight, or even The Bong Identity, but plot-wise there’s not a whole lot to American Ultra that we haven’t seen before.
Fortunately for those who check it out anyway, American Ultra does manage to pack a few of its own unique variables into an old equation, and the result is an action/comedy that’s not all that funny, but does manage to work as offbeat action flick. Chalk it up to an expeditious pace, a pair of very solid lead performances, and an unpredictably nasty demeanor, but there’s something oddly enjoyable about American Ultra that allows one to forgive some of its lesser aspects.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) are a pair of loyal but generally aimless young lovers who live in a dead-end town, working dead-end jobs. But one night Mike is approached by a mysterious woman who tells him a secret message that unlocks all of his super-spy skills — and then all hell promptly breaks loose. Turns out that the CIA wants to exterminate Mike, so they invade his hometown and basically turn it into one giant battlefield. So while the basic premise is pretty familiar stuff, American Ultra gets a nice boost of energy from its “all in one night” action antics.
Eisenberg and Stewart provide solid character moments early on, and they continue to exhibit a welcome sense of chemistry throughout, especially when bullets, grenades, and fireworks start flying all over the place. The screenplay is a wildly schizophrenic affair; it has some unexpectedly insightful moments in the first half of the film, but then later on we’re asked to laugh(?) at the fact that all the “evil” henchmen are basically just brainwashed mental patients — which is kinda gross. The supporting cast (which includes Connie Britton, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, and Walton Goggins) does what it can with a variety of paper-thin characters, but American Ultra is at its best when it’s focused on Mike and Phoebe as they save each other from numerous gun-toting assassins.
As a comedy, American Ultra doesn’t really work. It’s a bit too mean-spirited to generate much good humor, and the stuff that’s meant to be taken as dark humor just comes off as ugly. As an action flick, however, it’s actually pretty solid, partially because it barely slows down to take a breath, but also because Eisenberg and Stewart seem to be having a good time together. It’s a weird, messy, and sometimes tonally confused mash-up of action, comedy, and (yes) romance, but there’s still enough to enjoy, provided you’re a fan of the two stars, random violent lunacy, and/or marijuana in general.
3 familiar yet still tasty burritos out of 5