The Bong Identity: American Ultra Reviewed

James Ubaghs reviews the Jesse Eisenberg starring stoner espionage thriller, American Ultra

Targeting your own super assassins for assassination never really works out does it? The CIA- or whatever shadowy group it is- just never really seem to learn that pissing off the ultimate killing machine is clearly not a great idea. American Ultra revisits this familiar premise but with a twist. What if Jason Bourne was also really really into smoking weed?

It’s a frivolous but appealing premise, and while American Ultra is indeed crossing the genre streams, it’s not quite what you’d expect it to be from its trailers and marketing materials. It’s much like those Bourne types themselves: you think you’re getting an everyman who just happens to have a spot of amnesia, and what you’re really getting is a feller capable of murdering you with nothing but a rolled up copy of The Economist. American Ultra won’t murder you with a magazine, but it has a lot more heart and emotion than you’d expect it to have.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, an affably neurotic dope-smoker living in small town West Virginia, where he frets away his days working a dead end job in a convenience store. Kristen Stewart plays his girlfriend Phoebe, the more stable half of their lovingly co-dependent slacker relationship. Eisenberg and Stewart have terrific chemistry (as demonstrated in the sorely underrated Adventureland), their mutual nervy awkwardness creating a very credible sense of intimacy.

Indeed for its opening act American Ultra plays like a straight ahead romantic indie dramedy, and it does so well. Mike wonders whether his penchant for panic attacks is holding Phoebe back, while all the while trying to muster up the courage to propose. It’s all very low-key and sweet … and then the dead bodies start to pile up.

It turns out Mike is a former CIA super assassin, and it’s CIA brainwashing that’s made him such an underachieving mess, rather than all that pot he was smoking. A CIA middle-manager (played by an effectively smarmy Topher Grace) decides to kill Mike off, for your usual nebulous middle-management reasons. Mike suddenly finds the proceedings becoming very un-chill when his latent training kicks in, and he effortlessly kills two CIA assailants outside his convenience store with nothing but a spoon, and a hot cup of ramen noodles.

Mike and Phoebe go on the run together, all the while trying to figure out the ins and outs of this very heady case. From there things go more or less where you would expect them to plot-wise, and while American Ultra is frequently and dryly laugh out loud funny, it doesn’t really play like an out-and-out comedy. Instead it’s largely played straight, with plenty of drama and pathos wrung from this superficially goofy twist on a familiar story.

Plus goons get dispatched with inventive – and gory – wit. Mike’s ability to turn literally any mundane object into a lethal weapon is a running gag tying together all the well-staged action scenes, and it culminates in a rather excellent extended long-take fight set in a large supermarket. This is director Nima Nourizadeh’s second feature, and it’s a big step up from his debut: the questionably bro-y found footage party movie Project X.

A game and talented supporting cast round things off, with Walton Goggins’ turn as a deranged, yet oddly pitiable, gap toothed killer being a highlight. American Ultra isn’t really a stoner movie in the usual sense – it isn’t a loosely structured rambling comedy full of surrealist non sequiturs. But it has the modest ambitions of the terminally baked, and it meets those pleasingly modest ambitions with aplomb.

This is a colourful and breezy spy thriller, but it never loses track of the stoner love story that’s really the heart of the film. Screenwriter Max Landis clearly has a real skill in finding the character and humanity in otherwise standard genre beats. Come for a spaced out Jessie Eisenberg murdering people with spoons, stay for the oddly touching romance that for once is far more than an offensively lazy afterthought.

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