In one of the action sequences from American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg’s Mike Howell hides behind his kitchen counter, pistol in hand, while he is being shot at by a man with a much bigger gun. So, what does he do? Tosses a frying pan up in the air, fires his pistol, and gets the bullet to ricochet off of the pan and straight through the gut of the man firing at him. That is the type of movie this is, and it was a blast to witness what happens when Pineapple Express and Jason Bourne have a baby.
The story revolves around Mike Howell, a slacker who likes getting high and talking about a graphic novel idea that he will never publish, who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart), who we don’t understand why she would be with someone like Mike, but this relationship makes more sense as the movie progresses.
His life seems normal enough, but what Mike doesn’t know is that he is a sleeper agent as part of an experimental government program, and once they seek to terminate him, an agent (played by Connie Britton) activated Agent Howell so he could fight back. What ensues is a completely insane, fun, heartfelt action romp with Agent Howell taking on the government.
Going into this movie, you should know exactly what to expect if you’ve seen any of the trailers, and that’s what we got for the most part, except we also got something different. We got something a little more compelling than your standard action romp, seen to be forgotten once the next one hits theaters. Nope. We got an actual, formidable love story front and center, and this story is what drives the movie forward, and it’s what drives the movie from one insane action scene to the next. Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg share great chemistry on screen, reminiscent of their time in Adventureland, and it is their bond in the film that elevates it past what’s expected. The movie feels fresh and exciting, not because of the crazy action, but because of the love story which sits at the film’s core, and creates characters which we grow to care about and like. Not only that, but Eisenberg and Stewart share numerous heartfelt scenes which tug at our own hearts.
Another aspect of this movie which I enjoyed was the way that the action was depicted, and the toll that it took on the protagonist. Agent Howell was not this invincible being who never got scratched up or tired. Throughout the film, Howell and Phoebe were beat up and shot at and were in crazy action sequences which took a toll on their bodies and slowed them down. As an audience member, seeing the damage that these combat sequences had on the characters simply makes it seem more real and intense, and as the characters begin slowing down and getting tired, we feel and understand that. Too many times in these action movies, we see the protagonist take beating after beating, hit after hit, yet get up without a scratch and then are ready for the next thing (looking at you Furious 7 and Mission Impossible 5). That’s not the case here, and it was appreciated.
Getting all of that out of the way, no movie is perfect, and there was one glaring flaw within American Ultra, and that would be Topher Grace’s character as Adrian Yates, the evil villain whose the leader of this government operation, and chooses to terminate Howell in the first place. The problem with this character was not the fault of Topher Grace, but rather the script, which simply did not allow for any development of the character. I did not need a full blown character arc, but we did need a little more than him simply being evil. There was no development for his character and no real motivation outlined. He was simply evil just to be evil, and it was the glaring weakness in an otherwise strong film.
Another smaller weakness was the use of John Leguizamo’s Rose, who portrayed Mike Howell’s drug dealer and friend. They could have done more with the character, but he seemed like he was simply there, and that’s it. The movie would have been fine without him, if I’m being honest. He did provide some great comedic scenes, but he was truly not needed and it hurts to see an actor like Leguizamo to be wasted like this. That character had more potential.
Overall, this was a fun movie that knew exactly what it was, yet strived to be more, and succeeded for the most part. It was more than just an action blockbuster, and anchored by two leads with great chemistry, insane action and a simple enough plot, it was a great time at the theaters.