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American Ultra

D: Nima Nourizadeh / 96m

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Stuart Greer, Monique Ganderton

Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is charitably known as a stoner. He works in a mini-mart that rarely sees any customers, and he lives with his girlfriend of five years, Phoebe (Stewart). Having made plans for a romantic trip to Hawaii, Mike doesn’t make it further than the airport as he always gets panic attacks when he tries to leave the sleepy town of Liman, where he and Phoebe live. Mike was going to propose when they were in Hawaii, and has kept the ring, waiting for the right moment.

At the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, veteran agent Victoria Lasseter (Britton) receives a mysterious phone call that warns her that “Tough Guy is moving in on Little Man”. This refers to two separate CIA programs: the Little Man referred to was part of the Ultra program that was shelved several years before, while Tough Guy is the brainchild of fellow agent Adrian Yates (Grace). Lasseter confronts Yates who tells her he’s cleaning house and the one remaining participant in the Ultra program is regarded as a liability. Blocked by Yates’s seniority, she decides to take matters in her own hands.

That night, Lasseter visits the store where Mike works. She tells him some coded phrases that are meant to reactivate him, but they appear to be ineffective. But later, when he sees two men tampering with his car, he finds himself being attacked. Without thinking, he defends himself and kills both men. Freaked out he calls Phoebe and tells her what’s happened. When she arrives, she’s just ahead of the sheriff (Greer), who arrests them both. Mike is unable to explain how he was able to kill the men, but his newly realised (or reawakened) skills prove useful again when Yates sends two Tough Guys – Laugher (Goggins) and Crane (Ganderton) – to finish the job the other two couldn’t. In the process, the station is destroyed and all the police force killed; Mike kills Crane and he and Phoebe get away.

They head for the home of Mike’s dealer, Rose (Leguizamo). There they learn that the town has been quarantined and that Mike and Lasseter are being labelled animal rights terrorists who have released a deadly virus in the area. Two more Tough Guys arrive and start to flood the place with a deadly gas. Phoebe and Mike get out but not before he ingests a dangerous amount of it. She saves his life, but in the process Mike realises that she knows too much about what’s going on. Phoebe is forced to confess that she’s been hiding something from him, and this changes things between them. While Phoebe tries to explain things, Laugher pushes their car off a bridge. Mike is trapped, but Phoebe is captured by Laugher who takes her to Yates – but not before he’s poured gasoline on the overturned car and set it alight…

American Ultra - scene

An uneven mix of stoner comedy and action movie, American Ultra is the kind of late summer crowd pleaser that will likely please fans of both genres as it comfortably combines both to generally good effect. It’s a movie where lots of things happen coincidentally and predictably, but this is one occasion where it doesn’t really matter, as whatever flaws it has are compensated for by the huge sense of fun to be had, from Mike’s drug-fuelled paranoia – at one point he thinks he might be a robot – to the moment where he finally proposes to Phoebe.

It’s a deliberately offbeat, totally ridiculous slice of escapist fantasy that knows exactly what it’s doing, and if screenwriter Landis and director Nourizadeh between them can’t quite wrestle the whole premise into a manageable whole, it’s still comforting to know that they get it right more times than not. On the plus side, there’s the relationship between Mike and Phoebe, a touching, believable couple with minimal ambitions and secure in their love for each other (even if Mike can’t make an omelette without nearly burning down their home). As played by Eisenberg and Stewart, reuniting at last after first appearing together in Adventureland (2009), Mike and Phoebe provide the sweet-natured heart of the movie, and you root for them when Yates and his operation come to Liman. Even when Phoebe’s revelation threatens to come between them, there’s enough investment in their relationship made already that even though their reconciliation is inevitable, you still want it to happen sooner rather than later.

Another plus factor are the inventive fight scenes, particularly a standout sequence at the mini-mart that is shot almost like a first-person video game, and sees Mike using anything that comes to hand to ward off over a dozen Tough Guys. Eisenberg makes a convincing action hero, his slight frame and long hair at odds with the muscular attributes of most action stars, and he’s a revelation in these scenes, kicking ass in a way that the portrayer of Mark Zuckerberg wouldn’t usually be thought of. Stewart also has her moves, and she too is surprisingly effective as a bad-ass. There’s still a tendency to shoot the action sequences and fight scenes with too much of a nod to rapid editing, though there is a fair amount that’s seen in long shot, and is all the better for it.

On the downside, Leguizamo has an awkward role that sees him using the N-word too often, while Grace mugs and overacts in a way that suggests he’s read a different script to everyone else. The real script’s implausibilities threaten to derail the narrative at times, and Landis can’t always resist the temptation to throw in a few unnecessary curve balls (the character of Laugher and his eventual fate is a case in point), but as mentioned above there’s more than enough to make up for it all, including some very humorous moments that show Eisenberg’s complete ownership of his character (Mike’s reaction to a call from Yates is the best example, and very funny indeed).

And lastly, there’s Apollo Ape and Chip the Brick. Who are they? They’re characters Mike draws who have adventures – very violent adventures – in outer space. They make an animated appearance at the movie’s end that’s hopefully not the last time we see them.

Rating: 7/10 – too messy at times to be entirely effective, American Ultra is still a worthwhile view, ably enhanced by the pairing of Eisenberg and Stewart, and feeling fresh when concentrating on the action; if the machinations of the plot are too far-fetched to work as well as they should, it’s still good to know that there are far worse, similar movies out there that aren’t half this enjoyable.