Welcome to September, everybody! For us cinema going film lovers, the approaching early nights and chilly evenings leading up to winter mean only one thing, that we are entering in to the strange period between summer blockbusters and end of year awards contenders. The first of these ‘in-between’ films, for me, at least, comes in the form of American Ultra, written by Max Landis, directed by Nima Nourizadeh and starring a couple of my favourite actors in recent years, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. The trailer promised a mixture of kick-ass action, awkward comedy and the occasional bong hit, so just normal Friday night, no?
American Ultra tells the story of Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner convenience store clerk who, unbeknownst to him, is actually a highly trained CIA ‘Ultra’ asset who has been laying dormant and deactivated for years. A change in circumstances at headquarters leads to Mike being made a number one target for extermination, so with the help of agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) and his equally stoned, equally confused girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), the perplexed but instinctively deadly stoner faces a night of epic stand offs and assassination attempts from an onslaught of characters sent to destroy him. Though the overall premise of the film sounds like something out of a mindless, trashy Hollywood throwaway, the cast and crew of American Ultra have succeeded in creating a picture that, though by no means a classic, is enjoyable in a refreshingly sincere and honest kind of way. The film possesses all the likeable qualities of a small scale indie picture but also thrills viscerally with action set pieces that display all of the clever tricks and flips that audiences like to talk about for hours afterwards. The central brand of comedy is very much anchored in the realms of self deprecation and awkward sarcasm, which jar interestingly and pleasingly in the genre context of what is, essentially, a spy and espionage film. Though the picture provides for a perfectly enjoyable experience, there are marked tonal issues that affect it throughout with the more irreverent comedic vibe at times having to compete with darker, more sinister elements, a delicate balance that works for more accomplished directors like Tarantino but in this instance only serves to keep the film from finding a comfortable and settled groove. In terms of plot, there is nothing particularly innovative, but in fairness, neither is there anything too contrived of cliched, with the overall narrative certainly providing enough intrigue and interest to keep the audience engaged for a tight ninety minutes. Without giving away specific spoilers, there is also a halfway plot twist that, in hindsight, gives the film an added layer of nuance that may serve to provide a completely different reading and understanding on a second watch.
As casting decisions go, I cannot think of a duo so perfectly suited to this brand of quirky yet explosive action comedy as Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Both possess the quiet, awkward sensibility that embodies their characters, but importantly both have the star quality and major movie experience that allows them to transition and still be believable and engaging when the film becomes a much bigger, sparklier affair in its high action moments. James Bond or Jason Bourne he certainly is not, but Jesse Eisenberg really impresses as a the meek, anxious yet effortlessly dangerous Mike Howell. He is required to play a character who is discovering his abilities in real time along with the audience, and his performances is sincere, sympathetic and quietly charismatic. Eisenberg may not have been on anybody’s list of candidates to play a deadly assassin, but he certainly pulls it off and gives the audience a really endearing hero to route for. In a similar vein, Kristen Stewart feels firmly at home as Mike’s grungy, awkward, baggy check shirt wearing girlfriend Phoebe. Tasked with playing the straighter of the two lead roles, Stewart provides the shoulder for Eisenberg’s neurotic protagonist to lean on, and again, without giving away too much, her performance in the first half of the film takes on a whole new dimension when the full extent of the narrative is revealed. The pair share a great on screen chemistry, previously evidenced in their work together in 2009’s Adventureland, and this central partnership is backed up by a handful of fun if not super remarkable supporting performances from the likes of Connie Britton, Topher Grace and John Leguizamo.
Overall, American Ultra is a fun action romp that addresses familiar genre themes such as CIA operations and undercover agents, but adds a grungy, small town, awkward feel that makes it a more interesting watch than perhaps it’s on paper description might suggest. In a week where cinemas in the UK are filled with ridiculous, lazy, cardboard cut out releases like The Transporter Refuelled and Hitman: Agent 47, American Ultra at least offers something different, something with a little substance. It’s not the best film you will see this year, but it’s ninety minutes of quirky entertainment that won’t fade from your mind thirty minutes after you have left the theatre, and in September, that is pretty much the best we can hope for.