Every once in a while a film is released nationally that lives in the margins. It doesn’t conform to the norms of plot, form or function leaving audiences and critics alike flummoxed. These films are often passed over without hesitation and with little fanfare because why would we care about something that lacks the budget or star power for us to care? Often, we make the correct decision – avoiding these trifles that could have stolen our hard earned money and time. But to avoid these margins entirely would be a disservice because interesting films are being made here, propping up the tent poles we hold so dear.
American Ultra is one of those margin dwellers – a film that doesn’t conform to a single expectation. It’s all at once smart and stupendously dumb. AU tries desperately hard to come off as though it’s not trying very hard, and that’s to be admired. It wants to be all things to all people and rarely achieves clarity anywhere. But as I sat there exhausted (as the unbelievably aggressive credits rolled) I couldn’t help but feel the filmmakers had achieved something unique and rarely seen from Hollywood in the modern era – a genre film without pretension.
Jessie Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a do-nothing stoner with a day job at Cash N Carry. He spends his day behind the register and his nights at home with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart.) Mike and Phoebe are in love, smitten some would say. Their lives are simple, pleasant and full of weed. These two don’t spend any time in the realm of sobriety. Unbeknownst to Phoebe, Mike wants to pop the question. He saves for months for two tickets to Hawaii, the perfect spot to make the leap. When he has a massive panic attack in the airport however plans change and the two end up at home in the same baked cycle.
In these early scenes the chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is fantastic. The two have a keen sense of the stakes in this tiny relationship and truly feel like two desperate, extremely stoned lovers. Both are wonderful actors with some obvious limitations but in the bubble that Mike and Phoebe have created they come alive.
What comes alive next is the film, leaving the confines of Mike’s home to the cozy walls of Langley, Virginia. Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) is a high ranking CIA agent. After toiling away one afternoon she receives word (from a great gag involving a Get Smart-style phone in the drawer) that her asset will be eliminated in 24 hours. That asset? Well, Mike Howell of course – an assassin whose been decommissioned leaving him brainwashed, full of anxiety and comfortable with his little corner of the world.
What unfolds beyond the setup is ridiculous and too fun to spoil. Suffice it to say it doesn’t really matter that much but does set the stage for some impressively gory action. Director Nima Nourizadeh has a wonderful eye, layering each location with a beautiful sense of space and context. There are no quick cuts a la Marvel or DC – here the action is smooth and unravels within the frame. And the gore – the stupendous gore! This is not an action/comedy for the faint of heart, a lot of corn syrup was spilled in the making.
American Ultra can be mean to a fault and that takes away from the exhilaration. Topher Grace shows up as Victoria’s misogynistic boss with an axe to grind and wears out his welcome quickly. It’s clear Grace enjoys gorging on the scenery but someone needed to rein that tiny man in. Luckily, the strength of the leads carries the day. Stewart and Eisenberg recognize the type of movie they’re in and embrace it. Romance can blossom from the strangest of places and for our heroes can be made all the more poignant when soaked in blood.