American Ultra – Worth a Toke
directed by Nima Nourizadeh
written by Max Landis
acted by Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace
review by Bill Stamets
“American Ultra”– there’s no tie-in with American Spirit smokes– co-stars Jesse Eisenberg (“Adventureland,” “Zombieland”) and Kristen Stewart (“Adventureland,” “Twilight”) as Mike and Phoebe, a marijuana-inhaling, flannel-wearing pair on the verge of engaging if his panic attacks permit. Many will die in this “action comedy” before uncovering the prior careers of this stoner couple.
Screenwriter Max Landis– writer-director of “Me Him Her” and co-writer of “Chronicle”– structures a two-tier plot about Human Resources in the Central Intelligence Agency. In the sterile halls of Langley, Virginia two suits piss on each other’s turf. Victoria (Connie Britton) and Adrian (Topher Grace) run two secret Ultra experiments, something likely inspired by a stoner’s wacked reading of the Wikipedia entry about the CIA’s legendary MK Ultra program.
The Wise Man project is called Victoria’s $400 million “stillborn baby” surviving in the person of “a crazy scary rabbit puppy” who Adrian wants to “put down” by deploying programmed psychopath subjects from the competing Tough Guy program. She calls these screwed-up sleeper operatives “American citizens.” He insists these “assets” are “government property.” Termination protocol is lethally literal in this federal sector.
Out in sylvan Liman, West Virginia (as lensed in Louisiana) under-employed low-achievers Mike and Phoebe work at the Cash N Carry convenience store and a bail bonds office, respectively. He scribbles panels for his superhero Apollo Ape graphic novel. She is busy as his all-around enabler.
Victoria comes incognito to Mike’s counter and recites a coded message: “Chariot Progressive. Mandelbrot Set Is In Motion. Echo Briar Has Been Breached. We Are Fielding The Ball.” He is truly clueless. She leaves. Later that night he confronts two shadowy characters attaching something with a blinking red light in the wheel well of his beater in the parking lot. Cue extreme close-ups to Mike’s eye and a torrent of images racing over his mind’s eye.
“I hit him with a spoon and his lungs exploded,” a stunned Mike relates afterwards to Phoebe. He also turned their guns against them. It’s just the first of the bloody fatalities that Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) directs with adolescent glee.
We see Mike drawing his super-ape adventures in a notebook. End credit sequences expand his visuals into full-screen animation. Cartoonish certainly describes how Landis scripts implausible intra-agency protocol at the CIA. Yet, other passages are touching, even sort of smart. One night in a cloud of dope smoke, Mike and Phoebe watch an emergency crew down the road handle the aftermath of an accident. A car hit a tree.
Between tokes, Mike shares his revery about the tree that has always been there on the side of the road doing nothing but being in a state of “stopping” and a car that it stops that has always been “moving” since rolling off the assembly line. He sees the tree is “destroying this beautiful, like really beautiful and fast-moving thing.” The car. It’s symbolic. “I think I’m that tree and I think you’re the car and I think I’m stopping you.” Tearfully he asks Phoebe: “Am I that tree?” Later she realizes she may have been the tree stopping his car in life.
“What if I’m, like, a robot?” wonders Mike, when his unconscious super-killer skill set is rebooted by Victoria, just in time to save his life and his girlfriend’s. I admit it sounds like he’s channeling cannabis again, but these dithering lines of self-doubt are almost semi-deep. Here Landis reminds me of the paranoid impasse for Truman (Jim Carrey) in “The Truman Show” (1998). Both characters are stuck in small towns thanks to embedded phobias that make leaving there unthinkable.
“American Ultra” is a wacked-out take on the trope of government-trained killers with ultra covert identities. Far more fun than “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and “Telefon” (1978), this workplace comedy gets silly in its CIA plotting but is a fine pretext for a hit of multiplex A/C this August.