Stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) plans to propose to his long-time girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Little does he know he’s a target for extermination by the very CIA program that made him a sleeper agent. With the help of Phoebe and his former CIA handler (Connie Britton), Mike evades assassination attempts and tries to get his life back on track so he can finally settle down.
So American Ultra is being marketed as a completely different movie from what it actually is, and I find that fascinating. Why would a studio intentionally make their audiences think the movie will be one thing only to give them something unexpected? In cases like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the trailers were purposefully misdirecting, using the Winter Soldier subplot to mask the giant twist for its true plot (which was the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.). But American Ultra wasn’t covering a major plot twist, which is why I’m confused.
There’s no doubt the trailers for American Ultra sold the movie. It looked like a hilarious story about a stoner who finds out he’s a sleeper agent and gets caught up in violent government hijinks with his girlfriend while they’re both baked. It came across as a Pineapple Express meets Zombieland type of vibe. While it still has that feel to it, as well as some of that story, that’s not what the movie is AT ALL.
At the heart of the American Ultra, it’s a love story between Eisenberg’s Mike and Stewart’s Phoebe. It starts with him monologuing about how she’s the greatest thing in his life and his plan to propose, and it ends with them engaged (or married…it’s hard to tell). The weed stuff? Barely there and only for comedy. The plot about him being an agent? Honestly more of a subplot to create tension in their relationship and lead them to a point of realizing how much they love each other. The biggest surprise isn’t that he’s a sleeper agent. It’s about her, and it changes their relationship dynamic quite a bit (I won’t ruin it for you because it’s good).
This is what I don’t understand. American Ultra is a great end-of-summer movie. It’s got kickass action with plenty of comedy and a romance that doesn’t feel cheesy or overly-dramatic. So why wasn’t the marketing honest? Why did they feel the need to shove the love story under the rug? It’s not like the target demographic wouldn’t watch a movie about a couple working through a rough patch caused by people trying to kill him (It’s similar to the premise for Red, which audiences loved). But they will be disappointed when they find out the movie has way more substance—and not in the abuse sense.
Regardless, I enjoyed the movie. Eisenberg and Stewart, despite being the most awkward, pretentious actors in young Hollywood, have amazing chemistry together (It’s the reason why Adventureland was so great). Their onscreen relationship is funny, touching, and never once feels saccharine. And being real-life pot enthusiasts clearly helped them get in touch with their stoner sides, too. And seeing them take on violent action hero roles (which Stewart hasn’t done before) is awesome, and I’m telling you…the best comedy in this movie isn’t the weed. It’s the violence. The stabbing a guy with a spoon scene you see in the trailer is only the tip of the iceberg. Just wait until you see the broom pan shit. It’s terrifyingly great.
That said, there are still a few areas where the movie could’ve been better. Like writer Max Landis could’ve made more solid weed jokes (rather than just being like HEY THEY’RE STONERS). For example, if Mike really is a stoner, why not play into the irony of how some stoners think the government is out to get them with the fact that the government is actually out to f***ing get him? This is low-hanging fruit, yet Landis totally missed it. Also—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—why weren’t there more “hang on I’ve got to roll a doobie while we’re being shot at” jokes? Again, easy comedy, people.
Overall, American Ultra is just plain fun and comically violent. But the movie also has a more serious side to it, too. So much, in fact, that I’d argue it’s a completely different movie than what its marketing sold. The real story is about the relationship between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart’s characters. And while the sleeper agent stuff is enjoyable, the movie is more interesting because of the chemistry between its two leads. Just don’t expect non-stop weed jokes.
American Ultra: B
For my radio review of American Ultra on “Pat & JT in the Morning,” visit this link (starts around the 22:28 mark)