Twitter Plot Summary: A stoner discovers that he is a sleeper agent for the US government, and they now want to kill him.
At its core American Ultra is a fun concept. While much of this fun is played out on screen, along with lashings of blood and violence, it doesn’t quite manage to hit the mark in many respects. That’s not to say it doesn’t entertain, because it does. My complaint is that it could have been even better.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart work very well together. That’s probably why they have made three films together to date. That partnership bears fruit in this collaboration. They come across as the perfect stoner couple, Mike and Phoebe, dedicated to each other despite his panic attacks and inability to leave town as a result. Instead they remain in their small town setting, him dreaming of one day being able to get out there and see the world while drawing a comic book about his creation, Apollo Ape.
Slowly the layers are unpeeled to reveal that Mike is actually a sleeper agent for the US government, who have decided that he is no longer worth retaining and intend to have him bumped off.
While I don’t consider this a spoiler in any way (but some might, so either brace yourself or go and watch the film first), it was nice to see forgotten actor Bill Pullman show up in a brief cameo length role. At the other end of the spectrum is John Leguizamo. I always appreciate his involvement in any film, but here he felt underused. Just when you think he’s going to make a decent contribution to the plot… he doesn’t.
Put to better use are Connie Britton and Topher Grace as the two warring government agents. She wants to see Mike go free whereas he is intent on taking him down before he becomes a threat. This sets the scene for a team of similar sleeper agent types to be sent into the town, among them an always reliable Walton Goggins, to ensure Mike doesn’t get out of there alive.
Grace in particular gets to deliver some superb dialogue and it’s clear that writer Max Landis relished putting words into his villain’s mouth. He no doubt had fun in setting up the action sequences too. Where else would you see somebody killed by a spoon to the eye?
There are good character moments interspersed with some equally good action sequences. Watching Mike processing tactical maneouvres in slow motion is a nice touch and proves to be a solid counterpoint to the “real time” enactment of his plan that follows. His relationship with Phoebe, meanwhile, develops nicely as you soon realise that there’s a bit more to it than you first expect.
Despite my issues with how things ultimately play out, American Ultra deserves praise for being an original concept, as far as can be expected in this age of ideas, in a sea of returning franchises and adaptations. Its problems lie in that it perhaps doesn’t push its ideas far enough, or even that it suffers from having potentially received cuts in order to bring it down to a more box office friendly rating. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a nice idea let down by a few relatively minor missteps.