American Ultra so easily could have been a terrible film. If the jokes had been played for easy laughs, if the actors had taken obvious choices, and if the violence had been bloodless, it would have been derivative tripe. Instead, it is one of the best films of this summer, and one of the few original ones.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner stuck in a dead-end town. Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), his girlfriend, is the one good thing in his life. What he doesn’t know is that he was once a CIA super-solider, and those skills are activated just before his former comrades try to kill him.
So, is it ‘The Bourne Identity, but a stoner comedy’? No. There are jokes, but we’re rarely laughing at the characters. Instead, we’re sympathising with the absurdity of their situation, or being shown a goofy or endearing feature. Because of this, despite the absurdity of the film’s premise, the characters feel real. You know these people, you may have been them once.
Eisenberg takes a character that could have been played as a broad caricature of a loser and gives him an unexpected vulnerability. When he cries after realising that he may be holding his girlfriend back in life, it inspires sympathy instead of laughter. Stewart, however, is the film’s true secret weapon. Her character could’ve been subservient to her man, but Stewart makes her independent and equal. The central romance between these characters is the film’s backbone.
This is a violent film. When someone is punched, they bleed. We see good and bad people alike suffer and die. This will be a turn off for some, but I would much rather see a film that shows the consequences of violence than pretend people just fall over when they’re shot.
Nima Nourizadeh, the film’s director, packs scenes with energy. Fights are frenetic, and intimate moments are sweet. He works well with a smaller budget, finding creative ways to reuse areas, but there are moments when you can feel him straining against it.
You could try to sum this film up as a Romantic Action Comedy, or ‘Scott Pilgrim with weed’. Instead, I’ll enjoy a film that takes a chance and serves up something different. It is heart breaking to see it outperformed by mediocre sequels. The film industry has become risk averse, constantly churning out different versions of the same stuff. Whilst some great films have been made this way, and it truly warms my heart to see comic book continuity make it to the silver screen, it risks safe and mediocre films trumping new ideas. American Ultra is not only original, it is great, and deserves to be seen.