American Ultra (2015)

American Ultra (2015)
  • Time: 96 min
  • Genre: Action | Comedy
  • Director: Nima Nourizadeh
  • Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Walton Goggins


A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.


  • “Your teeth glow in the dark,” Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens tells longtime nemesis Boyd Crowder during their dark night of the soul that was the dearly departed Justified’s penultimate episode. Walton Goggins, who played Crowder for six seasons and The Shield’s Shane Vendrell for seven (“Family Meeting,” the show’s final episode, still haunts), has one of the all-time great set of chompers. Goggins is first seen in silhouette in the stoner action comedy American Ultra; he throws his head back in maniacal laughter, exposing the teeth that shall soon be bashed out of his mouth.

    American Ultra is keen on putting its characters in all sorts of situations that leave them the worse for wear. No one escapes unscathed. Not Topher Grace, whose power-tripping C.I.A. agent Adrian Yates is hell-bent on eliminating all traces of the Ultra program, an initiative which reprogrammed select individuals into superspies and assassins. Not the lovely Connie Britton (forever Friday Night Lights’ Tami Taylor) as Victoria Lasseter, Yates’ former trainer now underling, forced to go rogue to thwart his dastardly plans. Not Kristen Stewart as Phoebe, who functions as mother, girlfriend, and all-around protector to Jesse Eisenberg’s underachieving, anxiety-ridden, continually high Mike Howell, whose travails will have him resembling the Elephant Man by film’s end.

    Mike, it turns out, is actually a sleeper agent of the Ultra program, recently re-activated by Victoria in order to fend off the mentally unstable assassins deployed by Yates to kill him. American Ultra’s few kicks come from watching Eisenberg’s loser slowly register what a highly-trained killing machine he is as he handily dispatches all comers with his martial arts skills and numerous conveniently available utensils and other household appliances. An orgy of blood splatter, broken bones, and intermittent explosions ensue.

    What goes on is not particularly interesting. American Ultra, in fact, can be deathly boring. Director Nima Nourizadeh stages set pieces that combine casual violence and cheap laughs but are sometimes so messily executed that they come off as hollow and ponderous. Max Landis’ disjointed screenplay doesn’t help as exchanges are either cartoonish or unfocused. One could argue that the events and conversations depicted are exactly how Mike’s stoner would experience it – rambling, directionless, randomly significant – but it makes for painful viewing.

    On the plus side, Eisenberg and Stewart, who appeared in the far more enjoyable Adventureland, share a relaxed and lived-in interplay. One almost forgives the shoddiness of the film when they’re together. Then there is Goggins, who elevates a character that is basically a poor man’s Joker to one that could be viewed as a cinematic descendant to Blade Runner’s Roy Batty.

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  • August has arrived and I guess that means it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s turn to appear in a movie (remember 30 Minutes or Less?). He’s a fast-talking, brilliantly smart aleck actor and if he had a decent script, you always wonder what this dude might be capable of. Take for instance his American Ultra (my latest review). It’s ultra-violent, ultra-filthy, and ultra-preposterous. There’s the compulsory premise of a guy with special skills, a lot of bloody violence, and dialogue about the Central Intelligence Agency (and such) that seems masqueraded with f-words instead of actual insight. In truth, “J’s” magnificent turn in The Social Network now feels like it was eons ago. I wanted to wait for “Ultra” to bomb at the box office so I could back up that discerned dissertation.

    Touted as a stoner flick but coming off as nothing of the sort (only if you count the protagonist smoking a joint or two), featuring a bad guy who dies from a bullet that ricochets off a frying pan, and heralding the spoon as a modern day murder weapon, this 2015 release focuses on Mr. Mike Howell (Eisenberg). Mike’s a loser with anxiety issues. He’s also a long-haired nebbish that loves to get his weed-on. Finally, he works at a convenience store in Liman, West Virginia (a fictional town) and dates a spunky vixen who’s clearly out of his league (Phoebe Larson played by a wooden Kristen Stewart). Mikey doesn’t know it yet but a few years ago, he was trained by the boys at Langley to be a deadly killing machine. He was part of an experiment for bloke criminals on the verge of getting their third strike. When said experiment turns pale (cut to present day), everybody in the department flies from Virginia to its neighboring state to eliminate Howell. An activation then occurs in his head by computer code and walla, senses are enlighten, fists turn into fists of fury, and trigger fingers becomes happy happy happy. The agent who helps him fight off the CIA schleps who want him dead, is Victoria Lasseter (the always sexy Connie Britton).

    In terms of direction, Nima Nourizadeh (he shot the hyperactive, hand-held Project X) subjugates an unevenness while adding nothing really new to the action/comedy genre. I found myself not investing my time in the film’s intricacies. I just waited impatiently for the next habitual, action set piece (what else was I gonna do, walk out).

    Now as mentioned earlier, I wouldn’t quite put “Ultra” in the category of Cheech & Chong. However, if you were under the influence of the almighty ganga, that might be the only way you could possibly think of it as a masterpiece. This is reheated and rehashed stuff, a shoot em-up schlock that barely redeems itself. Yeah there’s the impressive cameo in veteran Bill Pullman (he plays a CIA superior named Raymond Kruger), a couple of nifty action sequences where the hero gives everyone the Liam Neeson treatment, and a speedy, new wave musical soundtrack accompanying plenty of impactful kills. But despite what some critics have noted, these proceedings aren’t cult following material. Heck, I’ve already been to the Mountain State (the film’s murky setting). I don’t need to go back again because that’s punishment enough.

    Bottom line: Eisenberg in the lead, deserves better material than this. I don’t know him personally but he seems to have an actor’s inferiority complex. In all sincerity, American Ultra barely heightens your senses with standard bone cracks, Ecstasy-laden scenic environments, and hazy butt kicking (you can’t quite make out the fight scenes because it’s always dark outside). And in between all the barbarous shenanigans, you feel bored not to mention disinterested. Just call it an ultraist ultimatum. The result: 2 stars.

    Rating: 2 out of 4 stars

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  • Quickie Review:

    Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living in a middle-of-no-where small town, that’s all he knows. What he doesn’t know is that in fact he is a government agent who is now a liability to the CIA. With skilled agents tasked to hunt down Mike, he must remember his training and survive the night. Pineapple Express meets Bourne, that is literally the best way to describe American Ultra. Don’t be afraid to put logic and expectation of deep story aside. Just enjoy the violent non-stop action with fair bit of hilarity. A nice little action flick to gorge down ungodly amounts of popcorn and soda.

    Full Review:

    The film is written by Max Landis. He is known for taking tired out concepts and turning it on its head to do something fresh. Yes American Ultra has a very simplistic story, but the plot device of a stoner turned agent is just unique enough to provide an entertaining premise.

    The fact that the film is simple works in its favour. We are given just the right amount of exposition for us to understand the context of his skill and why the CIA is after him. From that point forward we jump right into the action. The fight scenes and shoot outs in American Ultra were excellent, especially the climax that was shot in one-take. I don’t know what it says about me but I love it when action movies are not ashamed or scared of going gory violent. This movie fully embraces the violence, which comes with some gruesome kills that will make you cringe and go “OOOO! SSSSSS! That has gotta hurt!” Also because of some of the absurdity involved, there are funny moments that kept the lighter tone of the movie. Something I did not expect was also a competently told love story subplot. Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg were an excellent couple taking on the threats together.

    There will be no disagreement in terms of what didn’t work: Topher Grace. Oh dear lord, his character was irritating! It was like watching a 5 year old on the floor of a store crying because his parents won’t buy him a toy. Every single one of his scenes is him overacting and trying to be dominant. It just comes off pathetic. That was partly intentional I admit that, but still doesn’t change the fact that he was unbearable to watch.

    Aside from Topher Grace, everything in the movie clicked. It was a concise action ride, with a little bit of heart and comedy thrown in for good measure. Sit back, relax (in a legal way of course), and enjoy some fun mayhem.

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