If Cheech & Chong had made a Jason Bourne movie it might have looked a lot like American Ultra. It’s the story of stoner convenience store clerk Mike Howell – who discovers he’s actually a CIA super-agent who’s been sequestered in Limon, West Virginia following the Ultra Project shut down.
When a young hotshot CIA assistant director decides to eliminate Mike, things get out of hand really quickly.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and works the late shift at a rundown Cash & Carry convenience store. He’s planned a trip to Hawaii for the two of them – where he’ll propose to her – but a severe panic attack makes him call it off. So, it’s back to their humdrum, but mostly happy life – smoking up, making love and working (she works for the local bail bondsman).
At Langley, young hotshot Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) decides that the one remaining Ultra Project survivor should be eliminated to prove his Tough Guy Project is the real deal. In the lower levels of the building, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) gets an anonymous tip off to Yates plans but gets shut down in short order when she confronts him.
So, Victoria heads to Limon to activate Mike so he’ll be able to survive. Unfortunately, the activation code doesn’t seem to take – after repeated attempts – so Lasseter leaves. Shortly afterward, Mike spots two guys messing with his car and when he confronts them, they come at him with knives. Without even thinking, he utterly destroys them then, in a panic, calls Phoebe and tells her what’s happened.
When the police arrive, Mike and Phoebe find themselves in jail – where’s it’s easy for two of Yates’ Tough Guy agents can take them out with no effort. Except, not so much. Laugher (Walton Goggins) and Crane (Monique Ganderton) discover that Mike’s got serious skills – though they do manage to kill all the cops and burn the station to the ground, turning a covert operation into a gigantic mess.
From this point, American Ultra goes way over the top with its violence, though much of it is given a humorous spin (‘The frying pan/bullet trick’ could be a line from Get Smart).
American Ultra was written by Max Landis (Chronicle) and directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X). Like both Chronicle and Project X, American Ultra starts out modestly and then escalates far past any reasonable expectation. Where that worked for Chronicle, but not Project X, the results are middling here.
There’s only so far you take such graphic violence with wit and humor before it just doesn’t work anymore. It’s close, but American Ultra should probably have screeched to a halt about eight-to-ten minutes earlier. That way, the last bit of callous bloodshed would have had more impact and the final sequence (which suggests the possibility of a sequel but should, rather, be looked at as a happy coda) would have been more of a happy surprise than a ‘well, finally’ moment (though Mike’s last line will call NBC’s chuck to mind and is definitely worth a chuckle).
What keeps American Ultra afloat throughout is the Mike/Phoebe relationship and the performances of Eisenberg and Stewart. Grace makes a perfectly serviceable villain, but he could have been a little less tightly wound.
Tony Hale, as Lasseter’s former aide, Petey, and John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer, Rose, give solid performances in support.
The only real waste is Walton Goggins’ role as Laugher. When you’ve got an actor of Goggins’ talent and skill, you should really give him a character with more than one note to play.
Overall, American Ultra is smarter than I was expecting and moves like a runaway train once it hits the throttle. Thanks to Eisenberg and Stewart, the shift from stoner comedy to all-out action flick is smooth and effective.
Final Grade: B