A soup spoon turns lethal in the unlikely hands of sweet and spacy stoner Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) in the violently paranoid action comedy “American Ultra.” Mike’s a lot like the spoon — harmless unless deployed in the right way — because he used to be a particularly effective “asset” at the CIA, a term used to describe highly trained super-killers. But the program was shut down, Mike’s memories replaced with serious phobias, and he was planted in a sleepy West Virginia town with a girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). These days, his only experience with the law is regular visits from the local police, due to his conspicuous marijuana habit.
When a young upstart at the CIA, Yates (Topher Grace), decides to permanently terminate Mike, his old boss Victoria (Connie Britton) goes rogue to save him — activating his deeply buried talents, which prove useful for evading the team of assets Yates has sent in hot, destructive pursuit. A madcap, murderous chase ensues, as Mike lays waste to every super soldier sent his way — as shocked as everyone else at his own bloodthirsty efficiency.
The voice of screenwriter Max Landis, who also wrote the enjoyable “Chronicle,” comes through clearly, the screenplay peppered with funny lines that are slyly smarter than they appear. Mike is particularly funny in his dumbfounded realization of his abilities, which he processes with all the neuroses and worry of a peaceful pothead, aghast at his own actions. Directed by “Project X” helmer Nima Nourizadeh, the saturated colors, quick edits, and crisp sound design create a heightened reality to match Mike’s newly heightened senses, which can’t be dulled even by the massive amounts of cannabis he ingests.
What buoys “American Ultra” are the performances, and the casting director must be commended for putting together a group of talented actors who bring real emotional stakes to their characters. Eisenberg and Stewart are perfectly matched, and her performance is a warm reminder that Stewart, released from the chains of “Twilight,” is a remarkable actress. You really do believe in their love and want these kids to make it.
“American Ultra” is shockingly violent. Characters are machine-gunned down without a moment’s hesitation, digital blood and bullet holes exploding across the screen. The violence though, is of a piece with the nihilistic and paranoid worldview of the film, and the cognitive dissonance between Eisenberg’s sensitive scaredy-cat and the bloodshed he inflicts is at the core of the film’s humor.
In a cast stacked with MVP performers including Britton, Tony Hale and Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo is a standout as Mike’s wild and wacky drug dealer, Rose. Grace also turns in a deliciously jerky performance as the entrepreneurial young CIA upstart who goes too far above his station.
This is a deeply weird film — in the best way — and feels incredibly of this particular moment. There’s at once intense paranoia about a nefarious, shadowy, murderous, spying government, coupled with a streak of liberal libertarianism. Mike just wants to get stoned, be happy and have the government leave him alone, embracing the ’60s ethos of “turn on, tune in, drop out.” Ultimately, the humanist nature of the film doesn’t allow that to fully happen, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun watching Mike figure that out.
☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman.
Director: Nima Nourizadeh.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Rated: R, for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.