American Ultra review

In American Ultra, Jesse Eisenberg is a stoned cold terminator

Have you ever had the feeling your loved one isn’t telling you something?
Not something small, either, like they forgot to take out the trash and they don’t want to tell you about it right now because you’re already on the road to the in-law’s house and there’s no need to get everyone riled up about how bad your place is going to stink by the time you get home. (Not that I’m drawing from personal experience on that one or anything.) No, I’m talking about a big something. A dark secret. A huge, beating, lumbering truth that lives in waiting, impatiently twiddling its thumbs, eager to burst into your present and destroy your future.

And then have you wondered if your loved one even knows about this big something?

Final Poster
Lionsgate
Lionsgate

These are the types of twisted secrets at the heart of American Ultra, from Project X director Nima Nourizadeh and written by Chronicle veteran Max Landis. It tells the story of Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner who works at the local Max Goods. He spends much of his free time dreaming up adventures for a comic character called Apollo Ape but doing nothing real with the concept, and spends the rest of it with the love of his life, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).

Howell is neurotic, he’s repressed, and he’s terrified to leave his hometown behind. What’s more, he’s terrified that he’s an anchor wrapped around Phoebe’s ankle, dragging her down to the depths of his ocean of disappointment — or, as he puts it, he’s the tree standing in the way of her beautiful, cruising car.

What Mike does not know is that he’s actually a government-trained assassin with the ability to kill anyone in his path with just about anything in arms reach. So, yeah, he’s actually kind of a big deal. Mike uncovers this hidden truth after he’s activated by a rogue agent, and is set upon by two similarly skilled killers in the middle of the night. These killers do not live long enough to rue the day they crossed a Max Goods employee armed with a spoon and piping hot Cup Noodles.

What Mike does not know is that he’s a government-trained assassin with the ability to kill anyone in his path at will.

What follows is an insanely bad night for Mike and Phoebe alike, as they run all over their small town trying to figure a way out of the murder and mayhem that’s suddenly plopped on their doorstep. Along the way, an array of colorful characters come out of the woodwork: The Laugher, played by Walton Goggins, an assassin who is basically The T-1000 meets Justified’s Boyd Crowder; Victoria Lasseter, played by Connie Britton, the maternal agent with a deep fondness for Mike, and essentially Sarah Connor crossed with Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights; and Adrian Yates, played by Topher Grace, the sniveling suit looking to extinguish Mike’s fire for good.

There isn’t an apt Terminator comparison for Yates, really, unless you want to say he’s like a grown-up version of John Connor’s stoner friend Budnick who got his act together, joined a top-secret government agency, but never quite freed himself of the douche chills. Actually, that works.

The similarities between American Ultra and the Terminator franchise aren’t just mine to make. They’re all over the movie, to the point that you can practically see the script notes describing Lasseter as Linda Hamilton’s iconic badass mashed together with Britton’s Friday Night Lights matriarch.

Mike’s murder moves are in the same league as Schwarzenegger’s T-800, but really, he has more in common with John Connor, a “chosen one” of sorts who squanders his potential by yanking cash out of an ATM in order to rock out all afternoon at the arcade. Mike idly rolls joints at his day job and contemplates doing something with his Apollo Ape idea, but ultimately decides, “You know what? Nope.” It’s not until the proverbial “come with me if you want to live” moment that both Mike Howell and his inner John Connor are forced into activation, their dark secrets lurching out and turning them into the people they were born to be, like it or not.There’s even an exchange at one point between Mike and Phoebe, where Mike ponders the possibility that he’s a robot in disguise. Spoiler alert: He’s not. But Mike nevertheless carries a dark passenger inside of him, one he never knew existed, but perhaps one he felt pounding at his ribcage during its years of subsidence.

American Ultra
Lionsgate
Lionsgate

Howell is a rich role, and a fun one, for Eisenberg, who uses American Ultra as an opportunity to unleash his inner Superman — albeit without the no-kill policy (General Zod notwithstanding) — before we’ll see his outer Lex Luthor in next year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It does not hurt that Eisenberg’s surrounded by a top-notch cast, including all the people mentioned earlier, as well as folks like John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale… the list goes on.

It’s a very full movie, a story about relationships and hidden secrets and unlocked potential, writ large against a Terminatorish backdrop of stylish extreme violence and basic stoner comedy. It’s a weird movie, but a fun one — really good, if not totally ultra.

Just one word of advice? If you do go out and see it, make sure you take the trash out, first.

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