American Ultra – Movie Review
Rating: B (Good)
It’s almost surprising how much comedic mileage has been gained out of stoners. You would think most films would just make jokes about them going on “trips” and leave it at that. However, there are plenty of solid comedies with pot-smoking leads that manage to elevate simple material to clever heights. You can add American Ultra to the list. Director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis turn the concept of a stoner comedy on its head by transforming it into a midnight movie. Had this movie been released a month later, it would have been perfect for TIFF’s Midnight Madness series. In its current form, it works whether you light up beforehand or not.
What most people might not expect out of American Ultra is a sweet romance. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who already exhibited excellent chemistry in Adventureland, are the definition of a cute pair. Their simple bedtime conversations exhibit a relationship that has grown and they are slackers who manage to earn our respect. Eisenberg doesn’t deter too far from his expected persona, but he’s eased naturally into the nervous tics so characteristic of the vibrant personalities he has portrayed. However, when Stewart is on-screen, she proves to be the star of the show. She lights up the screen and gets the chance to be the film’s biggest action hero even as Eisenberg’s activated agent goes berserk. The script does unfortunately turn her into a bit of a damsel in distress going into the third act, but Stewart then gets right back to kicking buttocks. Hopefully, this does away with the current perception of her popularized by the Twilight films.
The ensemble of government agents that populate American Ultra are a fun and rowdy bunch themselves. Topher Grace’s out-of-control antagonist at first just seems pathetic even as he tries to be threatening. However, Landis is self-aware enough to eventually show this is intentional and we are meant to pity rather than fear him. Connie Britton also gets a good spotlight as another top agent with her own share of awesome moments. Less successful is Walton Goggins, who is given a one-note assassin to work with. A cameo appearing later in the film does elicit smiles, though.
Nima Nourizadeh displays a lot of kinetic energy in his direction, which feels like a mixture of what Edgar Wright and Matthew Vaughn do best. American Ultra has a grungier and more dirty feel to it, though, which fits its rather low-key characters. When Eisenberg’s fighting skills are switched on, that’s when Nourizadeh turns things up to 11. The best scene is a bloody brawl in a supermarket which does not hold back. It’s the kind of comedic violence that never becomes too gruesome even as fake gore is being flung everywhere. Another stand-out sequence is in a glow-in-the-dark room that turns our two leads purple. Michael Bonvillain’s cinematography is one of the key elements that makes American Ultra a visually dynamic film.
At its heart, American Ultra is a fanboy film. A chance for Max Landis to mix his comic book sensibilities with a wild and rocking stoner comedy. It’s the sort of genre-mixing niche film that’s self-aware about its aspiration rather than being a tonal mess. What’s surprising is how it’s able to jump from sincere down-to-earth scenes to more bonkers scenarios without feeling jarring. That we’re able to follow each and every character is a blessing and the film knows how to use every single one of its talented actors. American Ultra is a film that does not feel restrained or feel the need to reign itself in. If it did, it wouldn’t hold the same madcap charm.