by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
Jessie Eisenberg, a man who gets on my nerves but I can never figure out why; a man who only really has a couple of film credits to his name that I can happily watch more than once and while he’s okay in Zombieland and The Social Network, I tend to enjoy the rest of the film in spite of him being in them. Add to him Kristen Stewart, a woman who I loathed while she was making Twilight films. She very quickly got into my good books recently with stellar performances in movies like Still Alice and Camp X-Ray that gave me hope that she would one day become someone who’s films I would actively seek out and watch whenever a new one came around. On paper, those two, in a not-quite stoner comedy about dodgy CIA dealings left me a little skeptical.
Thankfully, a good trailer and years of reading stories about the American MKUltra program and projects like it had me intrigued and a little excited for American Ultra.
So, American Ultra, a comedy about Jessie Eisenberg’s Mike Howell; a stoner who, unbeknownst to him, is really a government agent that has been trained to kill in a million different ways, with a million different things, but has instead been left to his own devices with his pot smoking girlfriend in a crappy town in the middle of nowhere. Left with some dodgy brain programming that gives him panic attacks whenever he goes near a highway or a plane to leave his hometown keeps him locked in this backwoods little place and safe from prying eyes.
Unfortunately, those prying eyes have been watching him repeatedly try to leave the hole they hid Mike in and make the decision to terminate him before he finds his way out to somewhere important where he could cause trouble. Getting a deepthroat style phone call from up on high to warn her of Mike’s impending demise, Victoria Lasseter, the high-level CIA desk jockey responsible for the program that created Mike, heads to West Virginia to try to save him from the CIA kill team that’s been sent for him. Things quickly go wrong when Lasseter – Connie Britton in yet another film to come out this week that she’s great in – tries to “activate” Mike’s training by saying a suitably ridiculous phrase that should end with Mike going from stoner to trained killer in an instant, but instead of shaking up the assassin locked up inside, the phrase appears to fall on deaf ears.
With the pothead chalking up the visit to just another weirdo and moves on, thinking nothing more of it until a little later on when, in an attempt to stop what he thinks are a pair of low-life thieves from breaking into his car, he finds himself going all Jason Bourne with a pot of noodles and a spoon on a couple of CIA tough guys out to kill him. The magic phrase seeming to have worked, Lasseter seems to have kick started a chain of events that will have Mike, his girlfriend Pheobe and Lasseter not only uncovering the truth of what has happened to him, but on the run from the CIA’s best agents trying to stay alive with Howell’s skills as a super-spy killer type come in immeasurably handy in this endeavour.
In a well-paced 90-something minutes, American Ultra works very hard to convince you that Jessie Eisenberg could really be a quiet bad-ass with a marijuana habit and for the most part it succeeds very well. As the CIA throws everything, kitchen sink included, at Mike to eliminate the threat that the shady agency has invented out of nowhere, Eisenberg dispatches all the would-be assassins with ease in some well filmed and nicely choreographed action scenes that are very convincing in making me believe that the weird little stoner could in fact be a sleeper agent. Eisenberg plays the part well enough for me to be happy to watch him pick apart the CIA through a haze of joint smoke. Armed with a brilliant supporting cast, American Ultra doesn’t mess around with the list of talent the film has managed to attract. The seemingly ageless John Leguizamo throws a great comedy turn as Mike’s dealer of all things, not just drugs; considering the man has clocked up over fifty years on this earth, he certainly doesn’t look or act like it as he channels Gary Oldman’s Drexel in a shiny tracksuit. Kristen Stewart is near flawless as the unwitting super-spy’s girlfriend. I don’t think I’ve seen her showing off her comedy chops yet and here, as with everything I’ve seen her in recently, she doesn’t disappoint. Her timing is great and her comedic acting is splendid. I remain blown away by her talent and hope someone high up sees it too. She deserves a shot at something big someday soon.
Special mention has to go to a man that many will know, but not many will know his name. The FX channel’s veteran nut bag from superb shows like The Shield and Justified, Walt Goggins makes a brilliantly twisted and nasty turn as the CIA’s best (worst?) exterminator “Laugher”. I mean, I always knew the man could play a great psychopath but this is the first time I can remember seeing him doing it on the big screen (okay, I’ll give you Predators, but this is a much bigger role) and boy does he relish it. Stealing every scene he is in and making it his own, this veteran of over two decades of film and TV is still working hard to prove just how good he is. I’m convinced, Mr Goggins, I have been for a long time but wow, you were amazing and terrifying here.
American Ultra‘s comedy is more subtle than I expected it would be. But it is, without a doubt, spectacular. Up there with great comedy dramas like Burn After Reading and The Men Who Stare At Goats, whose comedy is brilliant but not really in-your-face like your average stoner comedy. Make no mistake friends, this isn’t Pineapple Express and it isn’t trying to be. In fact, with a little more practice, this director’s (Nima Nourizadeh) films will easily be confused with the Coen Brothers, such is his style. This is in no way a complaint or an insult, it’s a style and brand of comedy that I adore but feel we are lacking nowadays and I, for one, really appreciate that it’s been brought back with a bang, and a boom, and a slightly tinny sound of a frying pan killing a man, in American Ultra.