When you think of a stoned CIA sleeper agent with the ability to kill people with spoons and hot noodles, mild-mannered, cerebral Jesse Eisenberg probably isn't the first name that comes to mind — which is why his casting in American Ultra, as a stoned CIA sleeper agent with the ability to kill people with spoons and hot noodles, is so effective. It almost makes you wish the trailer had been done Cabin in the Woods-style — you knew something was up but the pieces didn't fall into place until you were actually watching the movie. Perhaps the biggest flaw of American Ultra is that you know going into the film that Mike is a bonafide killing machine (don't worry, there are other surprises throughout the film).
There really is something almost Cabin in the Woods-esque in the way American Ultra juxtaposes the clinical, cleanness of the CIA and the rural grunge of Mike and Phoebe's town. If the last five or so minutes of Cabin in the Woods hadn't happened, American Ultra could be a non-supernatural sequel, featuring an abducted Marty being brainwashed into a killing machine.
The two films also share the multiple genre juggle, an always difficult task that American Ultra tackles admirably. At first glance we have an indie romcom, dealing with the issues of Mike (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who are plagued by the same problems as any other couple: He lacks motivation, she can't help but get angry about his travel anxiety, he can't figure out how to propose, etc.
It's not long before we learn who Mike really is, and that's when the fun begins. Shortly after a visit from Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), who says some like, lyrics to a song or something (actually a trigger to activate his dormant killer instincts), an alarmed Mike finds himself standing over two dead agents, sent by Lasseter's cocky yet desperate boss (Topher Grace).
The movie doesn't slow down much from there, and remains anywhere between funny and hilarious throughout, thanks in part to Max Landis' script and in part to the cast's excellent acting.
Eisenberg and Stewart's on-screen chemistry was apparent in Adventureland, but as Mike and Phoebe, the pair seem more than in their element in American Ultra. They could both be written off as affable stoners but manage to layer their respective characters and make you legitimately worried one or both of them is going to die (there's a particularly sweet but extremely tense moment toward the end of the film — you'll know the one). Being able to flex a set of acting (and physical) muscles they haven't had the chance to before clearly works for them. Eisenberg gets the majority of the action here, but Stewart definitely holds her own when faced with the opportunity to fight.
The same goes for Britton, Grace, and the rest of the supporting cast. Watching Tami Taylor kick major ass is a treat, and seeing Eric Forman be such a colossal dick is weirdly enjoyable. John Leguizamo's Rose certainly wasn't underused, but it would have been nice to see more of him, and Walton Goggins brings a strange, sad humanity to Laugher, a killer who could have easily been a one-note character.
As for the violence in American Ultra... it's intense. A lot of it is teased in the trailer, but the crew went above and beyond in making the fight scenes as entertaining as possible. Anyone who's ever fantasized about taking out someone in a Wal-Mart will definitely appreciate the big centerpiece fight.
Perhaps what works best about this film is the existential crisis it puts forth: Anyone could easily be something else entirely, without even knowing it. On the surface, there's nothing extraordinary about Mike, but it doesn't take much to crack those top layers and see what's really there. Movies like this, where everything is nowhere even close to what it seems, have to make you wonder — are the people in your life actually really who you think they are? Are you even the person you think you are?
American Ultra hits theaters tomorrow.