American Ultra combines elements of The Bourne Identity and History of Violence with a comedic twist. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a simple stoner who just so happens to be a secret agent in the US Government’s shadowy Ultras Program led by the CIA’s Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). Howell has no memory of this and is unaware that he is a trained and highly skilled soldier. All he wants to do it get high and hang out with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). When the CIA’s Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders agents from his own Tough Guy program to eliminate Mike, Lasseter seeks out the slacker and activates his abilities in order to save his life. Now a super killer, Mike must defend himself and Phoebe from a gang of psychopaths with similar training.
Films that combine two genres can often find it difficult to strike the right balance. In American Ultra’s case, it provides plenty of action but comes up short in the comedy stakes. Director Nima Nourizadeh delivers some impressive gun battles and isn’t afraid to pile on the blood. When it comes to injecting any humour into proceedings, it’s not that there is none it’s just that it isn’t very funny.
Written by Max Landis, there is comedy in the writing but it doesn’t translate too well on-screen. Grace is zany in his performance but at times he seems as if he’s in a different film. The serious underlying tone often masks the humour that’s trying to burst through. Not that the film is seeped in gritty realism, many of the set pieces wouldn’t look out of place in an early 90s action film. When the smoke clear there isn’t many gags to be heard.
Eisenberg and Stewart are solid in the lead roles with both actors propping up a film that could have easily passed people by. They have a natural chemistry which makes you care about their relationship. There are too many characters shoehorned into the script that it’s detrimental to the more interesting ones. I felt Walton Goggins and John Leguizamo would have benefitted from more screen time with Tony Hale’s conflicted CIA agent adding little to the story.
What’s fresh about American Ultra is that for a film that hits all the right notes for an indie comic book movie, it’s produced from an original script. The ending drags out a little but the final scene suggests that a sequel will be on the cards, even if it’s in comic stores and not cinemas. I wouldn’t go see this expecting stoner style laughs but if you fancy a gratuitous tongue in cheek action film then American Ultra is worth 96 minutes of your time.