Spy games, dude
American Ultra a mash-up of movie-genre extremes
More or less simultaneously, American Ultra is both silly and provocative. It has Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell, a buffoonish pothead in whom world-class fighting skills have been implanted (via a top-secret CIA “experiment”). And it has Kristen Stewart as Phoebe Larson, who is Mike’s astonishingly loyal live-in girlfriend and a feisty scrapper with a few secrets of her own.
The ditzy stoner intermittently morphing into a lethal warrior—that’s the film’s chief selling point and the cornerstone of its darkly dramatic comedy. But that central premise also yields up a wildly convoluted plot involving intra-agency rivalries and secret paramilitary schemes at the CIA. Unavoidably, some frenzied bursts of violent, blood-spattered action follow suit.
Director Nima Nourizadeh packs all that into a very brisk and lively 95-minute package. That pell-mell pacing works to the benefit of Max Landis’ rambunctious screenplay, both as a reflection of its freaky dark humor and as a farcical counterforce to its darker, scattershot implications. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Eisenberg and Stewart give strong, credible performances in roles that are as improbable as the plot that made their existence necessary.
The performances, the pacing, and the by-play that Landis and company have concocted for the stars and a half-dozen supporting players give the film its most immediate appeal. In the secondary roles, John Leguizamo (as Mike’s motor-mouth drug source) and Walton Goggins (as a particularly demented product of the CIA experiment) are especially good. Connie Britton is good as a sympathetic CIA honcho, and Topher Grace snivels well enough as Mike and Phoebe’s desk-bound CIA nemesis. Tony Hale has a nice bit as an otherwise feckless agent who has a well-timed crisis of conscience.
But, for me, the film’s most lasting effect is a matter of its very peculiar aftertaste: it manages to both satisfy and frustrate an impressive array of desires—for laid-back farce, for violent fantasy, for political satire, for boundary-breaking romance, etc.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to insist that indulgent party-time comedies and paranoid spy thrillers have no business co-existing in the same movie. But “entertainment” is inherently indulgent, in the movies and elsewhere, and spy thrillers that reference drones, rogue agents, inter-agency rivalries, etc., can’t help but bring the long nightmare that is contemporary world history into view.
Plus, that clash of tendencies is so thoroughly pronounced in American Ultra that it’s hard not to feel that at least some of the film’s more corrosive ironies were fully intended.