(dir. Nima Nourizadeh)
“Something very weird is happening to me. I keep killing people.”
It’s official: we’ve reached peak-espionage film levels this year. With the previous offerings of Kingsman: The Secret Service, Spy, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the upcoming Hitman: Agent 47, Bridge of Spies, and Spectre, we’re certainly not lacking for secret agents and world-shattering stakes. Yet the dearth of all of these movies, only serve to make American Ultra all the more energizing a take on the sub-genre. While it may not deliver what’s expected, it’s certainly better than the marketing has promised.
Part stoner-comedy and part spy-thriller, American Ultra follows anxiety-ridden, pot-fiend, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and his sympathetic, yet frustrated girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). When Mike and Phoebe become government targets, he discovers he’s far more equipped to deal with the world than he ever imagined. With recently discovered and deadly spy skills, and a bit of a buzz, Mike must survive an onslaught of rogue government agents from the program that created him.
While Eisenberg’s trademark awkwardness may make him a suitable choice for an anxious stoner, buying him as an action hero is a bit harder to swallow. Thankfully the film never makes a hard-turn in terms of his characterization. There is no Pretty Woman-esque transformation, no “manners maketh man” transition. Mike simply remains a lowly-convenience store attendant with a few burned out brain cells and a heaping of extra skills. As a result, the film’s twists are believable and never more laughable than they should be. Kristen Stewart, who gets plenty of twists and laughs of her own, is really good in her role as Phoebe. Partly because of the script, and partly because of Stewart’s performance, Phoebe never feels like dead weight, but instead a necessary and welcome presence on screen. There’s a genuine level of sincerity and empathy that Stewart can emit, given the right script, and in American Ultra she adds a lot of heart to the film and gets in on a sizeable chunk of the action. There’s not a weak-link in the supporting cast of Connie Britton, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, but it’s Walton Goggins’ psychotic agent, Laughter, who nearly steals the show. While there’s a certain level of familiarity to each of the roles, the cast add enough of their own touches to give each scene a level of unpredictability even in the most exposition-heavy scenes.
While Nima Nourizadeh only directed one film prior to this (the found-footage party film, Project X) he displays a capable handle on staging intimate scenes and action sequences. His filmmaking is reminiscent of Matthew Vaughn in many ways, especially in his clever uses of lighting, music, and getting the most out of a modest budget. While Nourizadeh doesn’t quite take advantage of space in the same way Vaughn does, he excels at capturing the feeling of old-school action movies. While many movies of late have tried to deliver on that promise (i.e. John Wick) Nourizadeh comes the closest by understanding the frequently messy choreography of those fights and refusing to rely too much on gunplay. There’s an attack on a police station early on that’s every bit as skillful as the one in The Terminator, and the finale gives The Equalizer a run for its money with the best use of props in an action-sequence. Nourizadeh infuses American Ultra with a surprisingly varied amount of ultra-violence that has the ugly edge so many modern action films have been missing.
Even with the genuine, and surprising performances of the cast and Nourizadeh’s imaginative direction, the true star of American Ultra is scribe Max Landis. American Ultra distinctly carries Landis’ voice, even more so than his film-debut, Chronicle. Landis wears his comic book influences on his sleeve, and while the film isn’t based on any pre-existing material, it’s easy to see how the film would work as a graphic novel. The film’s editing-both the in way the film moves between its key players and the deliberate, self-aware pacing-is reminiscent of reading a comic from panel to panel. The humor is also distinctly Landis’ and while some jokes fall a bit short, and the film is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it remains consistently clever enough to put a stupid grin across your face for most of its runtime. From simply a narrative standpoint, American Ultra is saved by the fact that it never attempts to be a full-fledged comedy. There’s enough high-stakes drama and tension to keep the film from ever feeling like a parody of spy-thrillers.
While we’ve come to expect big-stakes action in espionage films, the biggest stakes in American Ultra are the personal ones, and that’s something Landis and Nourizadeh never lose sight of. It’s not the fate of the world, or even America at jeopardy, but small-town West Virginia. Mike doesn’t have to navigate a one-and-done relationship with a mysterious femme fatale, but strengthen the relationship with the woman he plans to marry. The film never tries to do more than the budget allows or what the story requires, and in this regard it’s not so different from the early Hitchcock spy-thrillers that created the subgenre. American Ultra is a film that entirely succeeds in exactly what it tries to be—an achievement to take note of. Everything is pleasingly on the surface, and the film manages to stay exciting because of this. While the film is a little too unrefined on the technical side of things at times, and occasionally too enchanted with its own cleverness to work for everyone, American Ultra successfully lives up to its midnight movie forbearers to deliver what could be the cult hit of the year.