1. There’s an undeniable kick in watching a reedy nerd unleash cinematic violence, particularly when he’s confused by it, separate from the act, almost observing it. I’ve always thought this was the initial, primal appeal of The Matrix, how Keanu Reeves was a weirdly dispassionate participant in his own fight scenes, kicking ass without really understanding why or how. (“I know kung fu,” he says, in the bewildered way that only Keanu Reeves can.) It’s video-game violence, where you’re responding to your opponent’s attempts to destroy you with movements so automatic that you don’t have time to think about them or what they might mean. It’s cool to be able to beat some bad guy to a pulp; it’s cooler to not really care about it, but to still do it anyway.
2. Jesse Eisenberg is nobody’s idea of an action hero, but it’s amazing how satisfying it is to watch him take out a gaggle of assassins sent specifically to murder him. American Ultra is a film with many pleasures, but that’s the singular one to me: watching a stoned, utterly baffled Eisenberg stab, shoot, and dismember highly trained madmen bent on his destruction. My cohort Tim Grierson has called Ultra “Jason Bourne with a bong,” but that’s not quite right: It would be different if this hell were unleashed by a more traditional stoner actor, a James Franco or a Seth Rogen. That it’s Eisenberg, a pensive soul who actually writes actually funny comedic essays for The New Yorker, gives it that much more of a cathartic kick. American Ultra is a weird little movie—a somewhat careless, all-over-the-place mishmash that adds up to less than it wants to—but I was never less than riveted. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a blast.
3. At its heart, this is a love story. Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a burnout cartoonist stoner who works at a quik-e-mart and seems to have nothing going for him other than his devoted girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), who he knows he doesn’t deserve. He’s a sensitive sort, but also a paralyzed one, racked with anxiety (he vomits every time he tries to leave his bleak West Virginia town) and constantly worried that he’s holding Phoebe back. Then, one day, a mysterious woman (Connie Britton) shows up at the store, mutters some strange phrases to “activate” him, and next thing you know, he’s taking out someone’s brain with a spoon. That Mike is so flabbergasted by this—at one point, the poor kid wonders if he’s a robot—is what makes it so compelling. This is a sweet, dumb kid who can’t figure out why he can suddenly kill people. He turns to Phoebe, the only person who understands him and loves him ... and, as it turns out, might know a little bit more about what’s going on than she’s letting on. That’ll come in handy when the full force of the U.S. government—led by a spineless bureaucrat played by Topher Grace—lands on the town with the sole purpose of killing Mike.
4. There’s a little more plot, a few more characters, and a slight inconsistency to the tone here, but it all still works, if only because it steers into its weirdness and tonal confusion. American Ultra has a sweet stoner’s soul, a sense that this could all turn out okay if everyone would just chill for a second, man. Much of this owes to the chemistry of its two leads, who are both maturing into two of the more serious and interesting young actors of their generation. Eisenberg’s quiet intensity always elevates his material—I’m not a huge fan of The End of the Tour, but he takes a nothing character and turns it into something three-dimensional and sad— but Stewart is just as strong here, playing a woman who’s smarter and savvier and more worldly than the man she loves, but also good-hearted and romantic enough to believe in and follow this sweet dummy wherever he goes. I’m not sure I entirely bought her backstory, but Stewart, who was even better in this year’s Clouds of Sils Maria, is becoming a relatable and powerful screen presence. When these two go on to win Oscars and become our most respected actors over the next two decades, I bet they’ll look back at this silly little genre piece and smile. They’re both clearly having a good time.
5. All of which makes this a charming little romance about two people who love each other more than anything else on the planet and will fight anyone who dares stand in their way. There’s a simplicity and purity to Mike and Phoebe’s relationship that anyone in the throes of young love—the way your partner feels like he or she was put on this earth specifically for you, and you only—can relate to, and both actors sell this hard: You believe these two would be lost without each other. Hold onto that when the mayhem starts, when the bullets start flying, when an assassin with mental health issues (played well, and weirdly movingly, by Walton Goggins) shows up and tries to set everyone on fire. American Ultra tries to be way more things that it should be, but that’s okay: You’ll admire the ambition of the thing, and how it tries to find a real love story amidst all the explosions and maimings. But it loves its maimings, too. I’m not sure the world was asking for Jesse Eisenberg to become, however briefly, an agent of ultraviolence and destruction. But I’m glad it happened.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.
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