I did not know how to start this review. I was going to write about how good stoner comedies are few and far between and ask if American Ultra is one of the good ones. As I pondered this, I could not get into it because I am not familiar with most stoner comedies besides Big Lebowski and Pineapple Express. And so I thought it best to tell you how I really feel because for the first time in a while, I found a movie I can relate to.
It is not that I am a stoner or a sleeper agent, but how I relate to the problems of the main character Mike, played by Jesse Eisenberg. As much as I dislike the idea of sympathizing with a protagonist played by my least favorite actor, I cannot deny my feelings for the sake of this critique or my dignity. If you would like the bottom line recommendation without my whining, you will like Ultra if you want action in a dark stoner comedy that is also an original work.
Since I graduated from college my anxiety has gotten bad. I often overreact for various reasons, mostly related to finance. About three weeks ago my neighbor’s toilet overflowed and he did not realize it was happening before I went up to his door and told him it was raining piss from my ceiling. My room being ruined was bad enough, but the clean up process was worse. My mom hired a dehumidifier crew to blow fans that would run all day and night for a week before they were removed. This doubled my electric bill and the cost of using the equipment was incomprehensible. Since then, my room has been repaired, but I cannot shake the burden it put on my family, not to mention what the renovations will cost in the future. Knowing this compounds my anxiety to the point I am considering medication, a thought that is not helping either, especially in the midst of an election I cannot get out of my head.
I saw myself in the character of Mike. He struggles to do good by his girlfriend, but is constantly held back by intense panic attacks and a reliance on drugs. He knows he is not the best of guys and tries his best to improve. No matter what he does, however, Mike cannot break free of his personal problems and feels he is letting her down. That is what it is like knowing you have a condition you think is affecting those around you, despite what they say. Even when good things happen they never feel good because you are in an endless battle with your emotions to try and relax. On that level I related to Mike and found it comforting he overcame his anxiety by the conclusion.
But how was the rest of movie?
While working as a convenience store cashier, Mike comes across a mysterious woman, played by Connie Britton, who awakens latent super-human skills in him. With the aid of his girlfriend Phoebe, played by Kristen Stewart, Mike tries to find answers while CIA operatives pursue him.
Ultra is an odd one in comparison to stoner comedies. For one thing, the comedy is pitch black with sarcastic meta-humor punctuated by massacres, the aforementioned panic attacks, brutal melee fights, and implied psychological torture. It is hard to shock me, but in a movie I thought was going to be the spiritual successor to Pineapple Express, it was jarring to see a character calmly walk through a police station with a SAW, blasting officers like she was the Punisher. It has a very John Carpenter feel with a lot of self-deprecation that works if you think of it outside of films about potheads. But the inconsistent tone will throw off your balance if you are expecting something normal.
As for the action, there were quite a few kills I do not want to spoil because they are pretty good. Scenes are shot well with a little shaky cam that does not feel disorienting. The choreography was exceptional with an emphasis on creative hand-to-hand combat. It was clear Eisenberg was doing his own stunts as he reached for anything close by to use as a weapon. One of the better parts was at the end when Mike was in a shopping center packed with enemies and nothing but stocked shelves at his disposal.
Eisenberg was great, but Stewart was at her best. I like the Twilight movies for how bad they are and it was nice to see her in something she actually cared about. Though Bella Swan ruined her career, Stewart has enough ability to reinvigorate her image and come out on top. She was also one of the better characters as a strong reliable damsel. Walton Goggins had a minor role as Laugher and really stood out as the true antagonist, opposite Topher Grace, who played himself. Britton was not there either, but her character was secondary, an acceptable excuse.
My reason for liking American Ultra is very personal. To that effect, my word on the subject is heavily biased and not reflective of most potential viewers. As an action movie about a pothead, it works better than most contemporary titles that are not called The Raid. If you want original action, get a matinee ticket, or check out The Guest, another self-deprecating story about a super-soldier.