“To thine own self be true.” A character in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” says this to his son just before the young man boards a ship bound for Paris. Couched in flowery language, the father is telling his son to take care of himself in such a way that if the need arises he can take care of others; but what if you do not know who exactly you are. Is it possible to be true to yourself if you question your own existence? Some question their sexuality, their belief system, their choice in a mate, their career and many other aspects of life but in the film “American Ultra” the main character faces the kind of existential crisis the puts his entire life history into question. Adding to his stress during the predicament, he must also face down over a dozen trained assassins.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a simple life with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in Liman, West Virginia. Mike works at a small grocery store, passing the slow times drawing comic book-like stories about a space travelling ape and getting stoned. Mike loves Phoebe and wants to ask her to marry him during a romantic trip to Hawaii. Sadly, Mike suffers from paralyzing anxiety whenever he tries to leave Liman and they must cancel their trip. Mike’s attempt to leave Liman triggered various alarms at the CIA as Mike was part of a secret operation to create super spies with exceptional training and combat skills. Called the Ultra program, it was led by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) who shut it down when it didn’t produce significant results and it appears Mike has had memories of the program blocked. Lasseter gets an anonymous phone call telling her Mike is about to be killed. Lasseter confronts her supervisor, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), and he tells her he is purging what’s left of Ultra and there’s nothing she can do about it. Lasseter travels to Liman and says a phrase to Mike that should activate him but he doesn’t respond. Later, Mike finds two men messing with his car in the store parking lot. When he confronts them, they attack him. Armed only with a cup of ramen noodle soup and a spoon, Mike is able to disarm and kill both men. Panicked, Mike calls Phoebe. Yates is furious when he hears Mike killed the men he sent to Liman and figures out Lasseter activated him. Yates then calls in a full mobilization of troops and special agents to shut down Liman, find Mike and Lasseter and kill them both.
“American Ultra” is a good mix of action and humor. The movie never takes itself too seriously and makes fun of characters within it that do. It has the kind of irreverent tone one might expect from writer Max Landis, the creative mind behind the script for “Chronicle” and several other films coming out this year. Landis is an entertaining follow on Twitter as he has very little in the way of a filter. If a thought crosses his mind it will find an outlet within 140 characters. That reckless disregard for authority and the powers that be are on full display within the story and characters in “American Ultra.” It may be the most dangerous summer movie of the season that isn’t about rap music.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart make a believable slacker couple. They have a grungy chemistry together that works despite Stewart’s reputation as having only about one and a half emotions in any of her movies. She actually displays a fair range of feelings as Phoebe and manages to pull off the biggest shocker of the film with a twist about half way through. It isn’t telegraphed or made obvious in any way and actually surprised me when it was revealed.
There are several good performances in the film aside from the two leads. Topher Grace makes a terrifically obnoxious and power-mad bureaucrat as CIA mucky muck Adrian Yates. He also manages to be funny despite his odious character and his willingness to violate the constitutional rights of just about everyone he meets. Connie Britton’s Victoria Lasseter is the motherly figure Mike needs as things get dark near the story’s end. Britton is able to pull off the hard-edged agent as well as the caring and concerned parental symbol to this very confused stoner. The only other major character is Tony Hale as Lasseter’s assistant Petey Douglas. Hale is able to make Petey both a friendly and efficient agent but also I man with a conscience that struggles when given an order that contradicts his beliefs. One scene shows that struggle in such a way that I was gripping my theatre seat arms as his life and death decision needed to be made. From a story point of view, his decision could only go one way but Hale shows the frustration and anguish his character is going through in such a visceral way that it put his final choice in doubt for me. While he doesn’t have much in the way of screen time Hale puts every second to good use.
There is one other major player I left out that had me kind of scratching my head. John Leguizamo plays a character named Rose. Rose is a drug dealer and friend of Mike’s that seems to have been pulled from a completely different movie. Rose is a character I might expect to see in a major city or one of its suburbs. The film is set in what looks like a fairly small town (that also has a fairly large airport). Rose deals all kinds of drugs as well as illegal fireworks and has two guys working for him as what appears to be bodyguards. None of this makes sense within the small town setting of this movie. Leguizamo plays Rose like someone from the gritty streets of New York City. He refers to both Mike and his two African-American bodyguards as the “N-word.” His presence is probably an effort to throw an unusual character into the mix to stir up some humor and add a little color into what is a very white movie. I have no problem with creating roles for people of color even if they are a little stereotypical; however, this doesn’t really work within the whole universe of this movie. Perhaps if there had been some kind of explanation for Rose being in that town that tied in to Mike and his past then it would have been a somewhat better fit. Leguiazmo gives an energetic and entertaining performance that still had me a bit baffled as to what it was doing in this movie.
“American Ultra” is rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content. There are some brutal fights in the film. Several people are shot at point blank range and there is a great deal of blood splash from these wounds. There are also some sound effects that imply necks being broken during some fights. Mike smokes weed through practically the entire film. Others are also shown using various kinds of drugs. The sexual content is brief with no nudity shown. Foul language is common throughout the film.
Despite having a character that seems to come from a 1980’s B-movie, “American Ultra” is a fun and exciting film. It starts the meat of the story quickly and keeps the momentum going right up until the end. Eisenberg, Stewart and crew all give winning performances and manage to pull off some pretty good stunt work as well. It isn’t finding an audience in its opening weekend but it deserves one. It may not sound like the kind of flick that appeals to you for some reason but I encourage you to give it a try as it may be one of the most interesting film I’ve seen this year.