American Ultra tells a fairly typical film story for our current generation. The film brings Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart together yet again as a fairly adorable stoner couple faced with adversity in the wake of something dramatic. Doesn't sound too funny, does it? Well, it both is hilarious and isn't at the same time as it was the first time they were seen in Adventureland back in 2009.
The trailers, promo packages, and TV spots for American Ultra have led us all on to believe we are walking into the theater to see a pure comedic portrayal of a stoner who suddenly finds out he's really some sort of CIA secret weapon after he is labeled a liability and targeted for extermination. I will admit that I went to see the movie because it looked quite funny and although they aren't always my go-to type of film, I do enjoy a good comedy. I also was curious to see what the reunion of Eisenberg and Stewart brought to the table because let's face it, they are a pretty great team. What I found out fairly quickly was not only is American Ultra not the comedy the marketing campaign leads us to believe, and aside from the previews spoiling some of the twists, it's actually a pretty great action movie with a some decent twists and surprises. It's also a rather cute love story and the love aspect sticks a bit more than the action.
Let this be a warning that this review does contain spoilers! If you have not seen American Ultra yet come back to complete this review after you've seen it. Or if you simply don't care, even though you should, keep reading anyway. Your call!
Still with me? Alright!
With this story we have Jesse Eisenberg playing Mike, a young stoner working at a local convenience store in a small West Virginia town. Mike admits through narration to the audience that he doesn't remember anything prior to meeting his live-in girlfriend and local bail bonds dealer, Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart.
Quickly into the film we see a rather sweet dynamic between the couple as Mike's narration explains that Phoebe is perhaps the best thing about his life and how he is the constant "fuck up" of their relationship despite how great she seems to put up with him. She even calmly forgives him for having a panic attack at the airport thus preventing them from taking a trip to Hawaii together. The trip where Mike was going to ask her to marry him. That's dedication, yeah?
Remember when I mentioned one of the main reasons I wanted to see this movie was because of the reunion of these actors? Well, with this story they proved once again how great of a team they are on screen. I saw and loved their chemistry and overall dynamic with Adventureland, but American Ultra takes it to another level and both of them play their roles extremely well. In the past we saw Stewart's character, Emily, in a negative light as she inadvertently derails Eisenberg's character, James, and saw the lengths he goes in an attempt to gain her attention and protect her. With American Ultra the roles are flipped to a point as Phoebe is the sensible one always caring and watching out for Mike. Aside from the failed Hawaii trip we see this level of blind commitment as she saves the house from going up in flames after Mike zones out with food burning on the stove, she comes to his aid no questions asked after he frantically calls saying he's just killed two people, and by trying to pick his brain for clues as to why men were after him while the two were sitting in jail. Not being angry about the fact that they were arrested but coming to his aid and trying to act in his defense.
Why go into so much detail about the dynamic of this relationship?
First of all, the relationship was ridiculously believable. They seemed like a real couple truly in love that just so happen to run into a sticky situation. You believe Mike wants to do right by Phoebe and propose to her and you believe that she loves him enough to just go with the flow and accept him for who he is. Not only that, but you truly believe that Phoebe cares about Mike's overall safety.
Second of all, it is one of the reasons why this movie didn't come across as a full comedy to me. Even the person I went to go see it with said as we were walking out of the theater, "that movie was actually pretty cute." You don't usually have a grown man telling you that an action-comedy was cute. When that happens you know you have some successful chemistry on screen. What wound up happening here was the movie turned more into a love story than a comedy. Not saying that it's a bad thing here either because it made it extremely enjoyable and interesting to watch. We've all seen stoner comedies, like Pineapple Express, and there's only so much you can handle when it comes to stupid stoner jokes.
Aside from the chemistry between Stewart and Eisenberg, the overall cast was good. Connie Britton played a believable semi stuck-up CIA operative with a soft side for her creation while Topher Grace was a pleasant mix of comedy and villain which is what should have worked in Spider-Man 3. I suppose he learned from his mistakes because he was definitely the guy you loved to hate.
The main thing besides the casting and super sweet love story that got to me was the amount of twists the movie managed to pull off and how it kept your attention throughout. I mean, the movie itself isn't too long to begin with but I didn't have a moment where I looked at my watch wondering how much more time I had left to sit through. The major twist would easily be finding out Phoebe was CIA the whole time. I don't know about you but I didn't see that coming until it actually happened.
When Mike is poisoned by the gas and Phoebe immediately knows what it is you're faced with two scenarios; either she is another CIA secret weapon or she's been in on it the entire time. The first option isn't really feasible so you're left with the second. It's unfortunate that the movie took the typical route of Mike then rejecting Phoebe for lying to him, but at the same time it was the best choice to make because it was the most realistic option. He was so confused in general and learning his soon to be fiance was actually just his CIA handler is a tough pill to swallow. However, what continues with Mike and Phoebe's sweet little love story is the admission by Agent Lasseter (Britton) that Phoebe was supposed to return to the CIA after Mike was settled in West Virgina but didn't because she had fallen in love with him. She chose Mike over her existing and rather successful career which definitely tugs at your heart.
Other twists included finding out that the entire mission by Agent Yates (Grace) was unauthorized, that the big CIA boss was Bill Pullman, and that Mike was initially taken into CIA custody as an experiment volunteer and not by force.
Overall, I have to admit that although I went into the theater with some mixed expectations I did really enjoy American Ultra. I think it's a victim of another classic case of Hollywood misdirection as the marketing completely mislabeled the movie to the public. My theater this morning only had 7 people in it and I would credit that to the marketing. People see it as another typical stoner comedy with some guns thrown in and that isn't what it is at all. If you actually watch it there is a lot more going on and the plot is actually pretty deep. It's definitely a pleasant surprise. Maybe label it as a romantic dramedy just to keep things social media acceptable.
Apollo Ape for life!