I don’t really know where this film came from. One day I’m just surfing the ‘net and there’s this trailer for an action film starring Facebook Guy and Bella where stoners kill people. And if you know me, I love a stoner-turns-awakened-government-assassin film. I mean, honestly, it’s like watching The Bourne Identity if Jason Bourne took bong rips instead of hunting those who’d done him wrong.
When you cast Jesse Eisenberg in a film, you don’t do so because you want his natural confidence to bleed on to the screen. You want that low-level distrust and peripheral uncomfortableness to bleed into the character, the script, the very notion of the film you’re making. You want someone on the screen that might at anytime fuck things up with social awkwardness or, if his turn as Lex Luthor has anything to say about it, just plain evil. Or, if you’re Nima Nourizadeh (director of Superbad-meets-Blair-Witch-Project film, Project X) you cast him as a lovable stoner, trapped within the confines of a tiny town, who, well, is actually a super-secret government agent separated from his memories for “his own safety”. And, wow, it works. American Ultra is exactly the kind of action movie I’m glad to see storming the box offices these days, films that are happy to blow shit up, and knock out teeth, and throw people through windows and so on and so forth, but they do so with the full support of well-defined, interesting characters. Heck, there might even be a good story in there. American Ultra finds Jesse Eisenberg’s Will Howell, a forgetful, panic attack afflicted stoner, living with his equally stoned girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, showing off some real warmth here). Things go bad quickly, when an FBI agent (Connie Briton) whispers a few secret words and Stoner Will Howell is turned into Stoner-Assassin Will Howell. What works so well here is that Howell’s character is a stoner before he ever enters a secret assassin training program, so the Will Howell we see battling against a gaggle of other secret assassins has all the trademarks of your classic pothead. Sure, he kicks ass (and Eisenberg represents the mixture of pothead and martial artist well, using a sort of loose-limbed flapping technique to attack his opponents) but he also lacks ambition and common sense and leans heavily on his lady for support, in all things. And that’s where I think the film really shines: Phoebe and Will’s relationship. Without the very sweet chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart, this film doesn’t work – it’s just an overstylized action movie. And sure, at times the relationship grows a little cloying, but Nourizadeh actually, and I only say actually because Project X didn’t seem to be exactly imbued with subtlety, manages to balance out the more cloying moments with humor and action. Nourizadeh is still finding his feet as an action director, and at times the action seems muddled, without the strategic pops that make really good fight scenes work, but they’re interesting and unique and absolutely brutal. In general, as a second outing from a fairly untested director, this is a strong film, one that plays on a time-honored theme in an interesting way, pushing the limits of Stewart and Eisenberg’s acceptable roles in the process.
Jesse Eisenberg, still uncomfortable smoking a cigarette. It’s as if he never smoked Basic Lights in an alleyway behind his mom’s house.