Film Review: ‘American Ultra’

Go Ahead and Re-title It 'The Bong Identity'
August 23, 2015 Updated: August 25, 2015

“American Ultra”—is it a cigarette brand? No, but it’s certainly a movie about smoking. Very much so. It’s also about that ultra-American kid: the Wal-Mart graveyard-shift cashier who draws comic books behind the checkout counter (Jesse Eisenberg) … except he’s really a secret agent hit man.

Really? Because he doesn’t seem to know that. That’s because he’s Jason Bourne. Well, you know—not actually Jason Bourne, but, like, Beavis Bourne. Butthead James Bond—the amnesia in this case compliments of perpetual weed intake, among other things. “The Bong Identity,” as it were.

Is it any good? It’s pretty fun if you like the idea of a cartoon-sketching slacker with a red-haired (dyed) grunge-babe girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) and top-notch, throw-a-skillet-in-the-air, ricochet-a-bullet-off-it, assassin skills.

Epoch Times Photo
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, secret stoner agent, in “American Ultra.” (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate)

Ultimately over the top, ludicrous, and silly, it’s a grind-house-level violent spy-spoof, played very earnestly by Eisenberg and Stewart to surprisingly good comic effect, and guaranteed to become a Netflix and Red Box late-night favorite. It’s got something. I’ll attempt to articulate what that something is in a minute.

Mike and Phoebe Sitting in a Tree

Mild-mannered, marijuana-moochy Mike, buys girlfriend Phoebe an engagement ring, and then agonizes, in a movie-long running gag, about when’s a good time to propose.

He was going to go for it in Hawaii, but being a highly sensitive young man, he manages only to annoy her by coming down with one of his predicable, neurotic travel-anxiety attacks.

It’s definitely funny. Some have said Eisenberg and Stewart are just not funny, but it really depends on what your definition of funny is.

Later on, lying out on the roof of her car in his convenient-store job parking lot, Mike pot-soliloquies about a car crash he witnessed, and how it dawned on him, that the poor car (which had moved about so much in its life), had run into this tree (that had spent it’s whole life going nowhere), and how he realized it was a metaphor for him, Mike, being the tree, to Phoebe’s car.

She assures him this is not the case, though the local sheriff has chided her for being Mike’s “girlfriend, mommy, maid, landlady, and lawyer,” and one senses she would like to sometimes shake Mike until his teeth rattle, rant a few bars of Sheryl Crow’s “Are You Strong Enough to Be My Man?” and holler “Quit apologizing!!”

Spy Satellite

All of a sudden, while they’re on the car roof there, the camera zooms us way up high to an eye in the sky, and then back down to Langley (CIA), where one Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton) is informed by one of her insiders that Mike will be immediately terminated.

Lasseter’s boss, agent Yates (a vastly smug Topher Grace) ordered the hit, and now a kill team is en route to Mike’s place of employment, even as they speak.

Connie Britton stars as CIA agent 'Victoria Lasseter' in "American Ultra" (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate)
Connie Britton stars as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter in “American Ultra” (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate)

Turns out, Mike was part of a top-secret CIA program that nabbed third-strike jailbird kids and turned them into hit men. It didn’t go as planned, so they wiped Mike’s memory, and sent him to dwell in West Virginia, to think about what he wants to be when he grows up.

Agent Lasseter beats the kill team to the punch, shows up in his store, and attempts to activate him with a subliminal message. To which his response is, “Is that a lyric to something?”

But when the bad men finally come for him, he goes all Jason Bourne on them, taking them out with the same spoon he was just getting ready to chow down on some Ramen with. This is of course horrifyingly surprising to pacifistic, meek Mike, and produces hand-wringing and existential angst.

And So On and So Forth

There’s hot pursuit through a Home Depot, employing all manner of mundane items as weaponry (dustpans, canned soup, frozen hamburgers) and running hither and yon across the landscape.

And then a “Sick ’em boy!” unleashing of a freaky, similarly mind-tampered agent, known as “Laugher” (Walton Goggins). The Laugher laughs. He kills. He scary.

Furthermore, Lasseter is now exhibiting mothering tendencies (everyone wants to mommy Mikey), and we understand finally why a babe of Phoebe’s caliber would choose to hang with slacker Mike, other than the fact that she enjoys a good West Virginia, empty parking-lot rooftop hang, discussing cartoons under the influence.

There are some dealings with dope dealer “Rose” (John Leguizamo). It must be said of Leguizamo when he blithely tosses off this kind of caricature character that when he is good he’s nevertheless very, very bad, and when he is bad he is horrid. This one’s somewhere in between.

(L–R) John Leguizamo as Rose, and Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell in "American Ultra" (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate)
John Leguizamo as Rose (L) and Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell in “American Ultra” (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate)

So … Why?

Well … it does have a particular kind of atmosphere going for it. It’s that nostalgic, American pop-culture movie vibe that plays best at an old-school drive-in movie theater: the surreal, heightened awareness of a carnival atmosphere, where the combination of colored lights playing through smoke and cartoon-y violence, backed by doo-wop on the soundtrack, or twangy vintage country and western music, just, somehow, makes us feel roller-coastery, twisted, and … all-American? Kind of like the first “Transformers,” and “True Romance.”

Not that this is a good thing. This is maybe kind of a bad thing, this all-American, bloody, but cartoon-y violence accompanying a romance. It’s just a vibe we Americans particularly vibe to. Since, like, the late ’70s.

It’s definitely funny. Some have said Eisenberg and Stewart are just not funny, but it really depends on what your definition of funny is. If you think funniness is best achieved by playing a surreal situation laden with comedic lines as deadly serious as possible, then these two—Stewart especially—knock the comedy out of the amusement park.

“American Ultra” will not bore. It’s fun, funny, nutty, spoofy, wince-y, and probably a complete waste of time. Unless you’re a Kristen Stewart fan. Which this reviewer confesses to be. And the time Mike picks to propose is maybe the best part of the movie. See if you can spot the Shakespeare nod; the allusion to Romeo and Juliet’s “star-crossed lovers,” right before the credits roll.

‘American Ultra’
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
Release date: Aug. 21
Rated R
3 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch