American Ultra (2015)

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh

Contains spoilers.

American Ultra has been marketed as a stoner comedy that turns into an action thriller. But it is so much more than that. But be warned: if you can't handle the mixing of genres or ideas, then you'll hate this movie and you'll probably end up looking for things to pick at just so you can pick things apart.

Jesse Eisenberg (as Mike Howell) and Kristin Stewart (as Phoebe Larson) have worked together before, as a seedling couple working together at an amusement park over the summer. But in American Ultra they're a cute couple planning for the rest of their lives and sometimes getting high together. The movie opens with them canceling a trip to Hawaii because Mike suffers from panic attacks at the thought of flying. After getting home and patching over the disappointment, with Mike wondering when he should propose (now that they aren't going to Hawaii), they settle back into their lives in small town-West Virginia. When Mike goes back to work, at a general store, a woman shows up and says something that means nothing, then apologizes to him. After she leaves, Mike sees two men doing something to his car, parked in front of the store. When he weakly tells them to stop and they rush him, he stabs one with a spoon as he disarms and then shoots them. Freaked out, he calls Phoebe. Things fall apart from there, with a CIA desk jockey commanding an operation to kill Mike, Mike and Phoebe trying to survive, and Mike still looking for the right time to propose.

American Ultra is erratic and bizarre, it has a mixed up pace, there's fast-paced but concise action, a lot of stoner laughs, a great romance, some deep dialogue disguised as druggy one-liners, some government intrigue and subterfuge, suspense, and even big explosions. All of that is wrapped up in an amazingly vibrant and well-shot atmosphere that doesn't give itself away or let itself be predictable. So while posters make it seem like Pineapple Express, and trailers make it seem like a weird Bourne offshoot, it's best to go into this knowing that it's neither of those things. It isn't fully an action movie and it isn't fully a comedy, it's a mash up of some of the best parts that make up all kinds of different genres; if you go into this with any kind of expectations then you will be disappointed.

 

When you think of an action hero, Jesse Eisenberg is probably the last person you would think of. He's wiry, awkward, and nervous. He'd probably be more fitting as a hacker than a secret agent, but he definitely looks the part as a stoner. So before the fighting starts and we see Mike and Phoebe as their free, stoner, and in-love selves it's a romance movie. And at its heart, that's what this is anyway, regardless of soldiers and explosions. So Mike and Phoebe have their spats after heading home from the airport, but we get to see them resolve those problems. We see the love and caring between them. Even one of the conversations, disguised at first as stoner wisdom, is actually one of the best conversations I've seen in a movie in a long time, showing us the depth of their relationship.

As fights start and Mike ends them efficiently, without any blockbuster-quality back-and-forth, he retains the distance that comes with having no idea of what the hell is happening. He's confused, concerned, and scared of guns but his top secret training from the CIA as a third-strike, arrested, drug offender shines through, and he finishes fights on sheer instinct.  His extensive drug-use over the last 5 years, following a period of time he can't quite remember, has addled his top-secret, covered-up memories of the CIA, and he doesn't even know how he knows everything that has suddenly flooded his mind, from everything about gun use to different kinds of tanks. Each time he's attacked, his forgotten training instincts kick in and, in a flurry of moves, he finishes his attacker; Mike's stoner, wiry frame unleashing hell on evil, government dogs with anything he can get his hands on, including frozen meat, a hammer, and a dust pan, is one of many things that make this movie a pleasure to watch.

Michael Bonvillain, an experienced television cinematographer with few note-worthy features on his resume, brings to life an ultra-vibrant palette in leveled wide-angles and more stoic cameras than steadicams. The closeups bring to light some amazing makeup that builds levels of grit and blood on characters as both action and tension build. One of the few problems is also easily seen, some CG smoke and blood in some scenes which makes sense with the $12 million budget (tiny, almost independent, by Hollywood standards), but the movie moves past that fairly quickly in each case.

And, although American Ultra has an uneven pace, the movie takes slow and deliberate measures with character development and moves quickly through action in the same way that Mike does: efficiently. But, outside of the intriguing rising action and climactic fighting, the movie takes it's time to provide abundant character background. The relationship between Mike and Phoebe is beautifully created, turning the riotous action comedy into the most action-packed rom-com I've ever seen.

There's so many different things happening in this movie that it's almost hard to believe. And that is definitely going to put off lots of people. The mix of genres here is such that the movie is going to end up being very split. You'll either love it or hate it. Obviously I love it. I love the gritty, unbelievable make up and the acting, and the eccentric story that ties up a stoner into shitloads of CIA subterfuge, and the love story is so much better than Twilight. This movie has redeemed Kristen Stewart and turned Jesse Eisenberg into an action star and now I have to say that I'm oddly hoping for a sequel.

 
 

TL;DR: What might seem like Pineapple Express is actually, probably the best romantic comedy I've seen in a long time. It's got it's dose of action and an amazingly well-rounded love story portrayed by fantastic acting. But if you can't handle multiple genres in one movie that doesn't explain every little facet of itself and approaches narrative, editing, and production very creatively, then you'll probably hate this movie and find reasons to pick it apart that didn't actually bother you while you watched it.

  • Acting – 19 / 20
  • Story – 15 / 20
  • Cinematography – 20 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 9 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 8 / 10
  • Action/Comedy – 9 / 10
  • Other – 10 / 10
 

Grade A = 90 / 100