Take a Drink (or you know, whatever else…): whenever anyone smokes a joint.
Take a Drink: every time the ring is shown.
Take a Drink: whenever it isn’t “the right time.”
Take a Drink: at every mention of fantasy football.
Take a Drink: every time someone calls Connie Britton’s character a “monkey fucker.”
Take a Drink: for every “asset” death.
Do a Shot: every time Mike uses a non-weapon as a weapon. Do Two Shots: for a dustpan (my favorite)
By: BabyRuth (Three Beers) –
Well folks, we’re already winding down the summer movie season. The last couple weekends of August have become known as the dumping grounds for films studios didn’t have enough confidence in to perform well against the big blockbusters. But every now and then, a sleeper hit emerges.
The offbeat stoner comedy/action/romance American Ultra looks to be a possible contender for that title. It’s certainly a welcome change of pace from all the sequels, reboots, and sequel-reboots that have been monopolizing theaters for the past three months. But does it provide a legit cinematic high? Or is it just some headache-inducing oregano?
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a directionless convenience store clerk living in East Bumfuck, West Virginia. But he’s perfectly fine with that, happily sharing a home with his true-love Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and smoking the marijuana pretty much all day long. His one big dream is to publish the comic he draws in his spare time (all of his time) featuring a superhero chimp astronaut named Apollo Ape. It’s good that Mike isn’t too ambitious as he suffers from debilitating panic attacks every time he attempts to even go outside town lines.
Pretty much every guy I dated in high school.
The days go by, one after the next, with little changing except the day of the week on the sign outside of the Cash-n-Carry. That is until one night when a strange woman (Connie Britton) comes into the store and recites a nonsensical phrase to Mike. Later, Mike notices two men vandalizing his car. Holding only a spoon and cup of noodles, he is forced to defend himself as the knife-wielding men approach. To his surprise, Mike takes out the men easily with his makeshift weapons. Dumbfounded and stoned, he figures he must a robot.
Of course he isn’t an actual robot (thank God, we’ve had enough of that this summer), though in some sense he kind of is. See, years back Mike was part of a CIA experiment and was brainwashed and trained to be a super killing-machine. When the program was abandoned, Mike’s memories of being an assassin were wiped clean and he was transplanted to this small, boring town and his new life.
Over at CIA headquarters, power-hungry pip squeak official Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) is determined to permanently eliminate Mike, hence the two now-dead hitmen. But Mike has someone watching out for him, the former head of the experiment and his gibberish-spouting customer, agent Victoria Lasseter (Britton) who goes against orders and “activates him” in order to save his life.
With the explanation for his new-found powers still unbeknownst to Mike, he and Phoebe are soon on the run from Yate’s team of other reactivated “assets.”
Nothing harshes your mellow like a bunch of highly-skilled assassins out to kill you.
If this premise sounds ridiculous, that’s kind of the point (Fun and Scary Fact: it is somewhat based on an actual CIA experiment). American Ultra is a batshit insane hodgepodge of ideas –often inconsistent, but always entertaining –and plenty of good, bloody fun.
Though there are familiar elements from previous films (The Bourne Identity, Pineapple Express, and True Romance to name a few), Max Landis’ screenplay feels inventive and fresh. It never takes itself too seriously and moves at a brisk pace. It’s smarter than you’d expect and there are some hilarious moments and wonderful sight gags (the best one is at the very end).
Director Nima Nourizadeh’s (Project X) experience in music videos lends itself well to the heightened reality of the film. He creates a contrast between the slow-paced and bleak gray of small-town hum-drumminess that is Mike and Phoebe’s former life and the stylized, almost cartoonish feel once the action and bloodshed start. The saturation of color and fast editing nearly result in sensory overload, but in a good way.
The biggest strength is the cast though. Jesse Eisenberg is perfect as the doofy, sweet, unlikely hero and he fully embraces the role. His comic-timing is spot-on as are his priceless reactions.
I think we all (myself included) owe a big apology to Kristen Stewart, who in recent years has successfully distanced herself from the Twilight franchise and proven herself as an honest-to-goodness talented actress who definitely has more than one facial expression. She’s superb here and her chemistry with Eisenberg is as believable and authentic as it was in 2009’s Adventureland, even more so.
The love story is the driving force of the film and without a convincing couple the whole thing would fail. Thankfully it does the opposite as their pairing is the best thing about this movie.
A far better, and healthier, romance than this one.
Despite the fact that he has been in many films since, it’s still a little weird seeing Topher Grace as anyone other than his That 70s Show character , especially as a sociopathic government official. But oddly, that’s what makes it work. It’s like Eric Forman grew up, joined the CIA, and lost his damn mind. Not since 80s James Spader has there been an actor so good at playing a slimy jerk (well, other than Eisenberg, which makes seeing the two pitted against each other pretty amusing) and he revels in it.
“STOP ASKING ME ABOUT FES!”
The supporting cast is equally inspired with fun appearances by Tony Hale, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman, and the always scene-stealing John Leguizamo.
The action is intense and there’s a lot of gore, warranting the film’s R rating. Eisenberg’s MacGyver-esque kills are creative and humorous, though brutal (again, this one’s not for the squeamish). There’s a brilliant supermarket fight sequence that at least appears to be one long take late in the film.
“Paper or plastic?… for your BODYBAG!”
Finally, Stewart and Britton’s characters are strong women who both get a chance to kick some ass, which is always a good thing.
There’s a lot going on and with all the genre-mashing, at times the film feels tonally uneven and lacking in focus. A surprisingly emotional scene near the end featuring Walton Goggins’ character comes out of nowhere and adds a serious layer of commentary that unfortunately is never properly explored and, given the ending, seems to be completely dismissed.
The slow-motion bullet effect.
Please stop it.
It’s played out.
No one is impressed anymore.
P.S. I’m not kidding around. Automatic beer if you use it.
Over-the-top, unconventional, and a hell of a lot of fun, American Ultra is a refreshing surprise. You’ll never look at a dustpan the same way again.
Last Call: Stay through the credits for some cool animation featuring Apollo Ape.