Kiss, kiss, bang, bong!
As much as we love Total Recall, we've always had a problem with the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger being a 'normal' guy who suddenly discovers he's a sleeper super-agent.Wouldn't it be more fun if the protagonist was a dorky guy who suddenly finds he has all these destructive fighting skills? Well that is essentially the premise of American Ultra, a film that combines stoner comedy with super-spy antics to great effect. Jessie Eisenberg plays stoner Mike, who works at a convenience store, gets high and suffers from a crippling inability to physically leave his home town. Kristen Stewart plays Mike's girlfriend Phoebe and the pair seem perfectly happy to spend their time hanging out and getting stoned. Mike wants more for Phoebe but his attempt to propose whilst on holiday in Hawaii was scuppered by the fact he couldn't get on the plane.However the pair love each other and seem largely happy in their laid-back lifestyle. That is until Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), an ambitious operative at the CIA, decides to clean house and sends a hit squad to kill Mike. Yates has a new super-soldier programme and feels the programme that created Mike was a mistake. Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), who ran the earlier programme learns of Yates's plan and drives out to activate the oblivious Mike, in an attempt to save his life. Chaos ensues as Mike discovers unknown skills and, as the situation escalates, Yates puts the entire town in lock-down as he desperately tries to eliminate Mike, Phoebe and Lasseter.
The film was conceived by up-and-coming screenwriter Max Landis (son of writer/director John), who got the idea whilst listening to a stoned friend of his talking about conspiracy theories at a party one night. Landis thought the idea of unknowing stoner who suddenly finds out he's a deadly super-agent was an amusing one and created the character of Mike. Landis had previously written the excellent 'found-footage' superhero film Chronicle and he clearly has an ability to mix genres; something he has done again more recently with Victor Frankenstein.
The role of Mike was tailor made for Jessie Eisenberg, who can play the confused, timid stoner in his sleep but as he proved in The Social Network and Now You See Me, can also play ice cold, cocky and threatening when necessary. As such he handles the challenges of Mike very well, effortlessly transitioning from the stoner loser to highly effective killing machine. He also conveys Mike's confusion at what is happening to him to great comic effect and, initially at least, Mike isn't sure if the sudden appearance of all these assassins is just a very bad trip.
The film balances action and humour effectively, whilst the likeable characters ensure you care about them.
Eisenberg is ably supported by an impressive cast, including the genuinely underrated Kirsten Stewart, who repeats the great chemistry the two shared in the excellent Adventureland. Topher Grace plays the villain as a petulant child who, once he has even a small degree of power, totally abuses it to his own ends. Connie Britton is also fun as the older CIA operative, who is sick of the young upstarts as the rules of the game constantly change. John Leguizamo delivers some fantastic comic relief as Mike's friend Rose and Tony Hale is equally as funny as another CIA operative called Petey. Walton Goggins is also very effective as the deranged 'Laugher', a product of Yates's super-soldier programme.
The film was directed by British filmmaker Nima Nourizadeh, who himself had just come off another 'found-footage' hit Project X, and he does a great job of balancing the humour and the action. He ensures that you like both Mike and Phoebe enough to care about them and he even manages to find a degree of pathos when it comes to secondary characters like 'Laugher'. Thanks to Landis's knowing script and Nourizadeh's competent direction, the result is an enjoyable action comedy with enough interesting characters and fun twists to make it worth 90 minutes of your time.
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