The What/Why/How of “American Ultra”

american ultra onesheet

Sometimes a film is easy to sum up.  Sometimes a movie sucks so terribly, or shines so brightly, that a quick writeup is all that’s needed. Sometimes I’m on codeine cough syrup for summer bronchitis (WTF!!11!!) that a quickie is all I can do before I start drooling out of my mouthparts.  Which of course many think is exactly what I do even without syrup.  Onward, to American Ultra!

Nutshell: American Ultra is a campy, over-the-top action story with a heart hidden in there somewhere behind the dime bags.

What is it: stoner schlub Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and his hot, ever-forgiving gf Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) live in Liman, WV.  Before you start thinking this is another schlubby guy/beautiful gal sitcom idea from CBS, super-spy Connie-Freakin’-Britton enters the scene, and “activates” Mike.  Why?  Because her boss wants to clean up a failed training program, and that means 86-ing their last sleeper operative.  AKA Mike.

Why should you see it: like stoner movies?  Oh come on; if they’re done right, who doesn’t?  This mashup of stoner film and serious spy thriller successfully walks the fine line between mindless camp and plot-what-plot thriller.  Not exactly an easy thing to do, as the plot tends to bounce around sometimes, cutting a little too quickly from one scene/location/character to another with almost reckless abandon.  However, the action sequences have a Grosse Point Blank vibe that makes up for it.

How did I like it: Bronchitis is a bitch. Sneaks up on you.  But with this cough syrup I’m in the proper frame of mind to review this Super Stoner Spy story.  And American Ultra is one of the better films in the stoner genre.  Hey, it’s not that tough to top Your Highness or Pot Zombies.  American Ultra is on par with This Is the End, but doesn’t reach the heights (heh) of The Big Lebowski.  This is the film that John Woo would make if he got totally baked with Jay and Silent Bob.  And in that regard, it works.

American Ultra doesn’t go for cinematic genius, it’s here to entertain you with a crazy story and a kickass character.  Eisenberg is the usual unknowing-badass-waiting-to-blossom, and when it all hits the fan the violence is almost poetic.  There’s also the usual spy/action film “everything’s a martial arts weapon” tidbits, so be on the lookout for spoons, frying pans and teddy bears.

Stewart’s Phoebe is pretty cool too.  Without spoiling too much, I’ll simply say that folks who think KStew is a one sparkle pony?  Y’all need to sit down.  She puts a grrl power spin on the damsel in distress, becoming a true partner in every sense of the word.  And she’s the brains of the operation; on more than one occasion Phoebe  pulls Mike out of his CIA-induced brain fog and gets him back on track.  Of course, after all the weed those two sucked in, perhaps the brain fog is real now.

Look for performances by Topher Grace as CIA uber-jerk Adrian, Justified‘s Walton Goggins as a psychotic Black Ops assassin,  Arrested Development‘s Tony Hale as CIA wonk Petey, John Leguizamo as Rose, Mike’s BFF/dealer, and Bill Pullman as a “Sam the Eagle”-eyed CIA honcho.  Giving more info on these characters could ruin the fun…but I do have to say I love Rose’s holographic tracksuit.

While I know American Ultra isn’t much more than a cookie-cutter spy story that bops around plot-wise, the chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart makes their characters worth rooting for.  (This ain’t their first rodeo; they starred together in Adventureland in ’09.)  And any0ne in the DC area — or who has a so-so trust level when it comes to our government’s intelligence community — will enjoy the not so subtle jabs at The Man.  For an end of summer film, this is lightweight fare that’s pretty heavy on enjoyment.

 

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