There is a bold sense of anarchy to AMERICAN ULTRA that is as unrepentant as it is unpredictable. Blending romance and paranoia into a black comedy that confirms our best hopes and worst fears about the powers that be, it has no problem exploring absurdity in all this manifestations, and doing so with forthright violence of which Sam Peckinpah would be proud, and an existential nausea that might give Sartre pause.
The film tackles the questions of free-will, identity, and the nature of reality courtesy of Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a good-natured stoner of a clerk at a rundown convenience store on the outskirts of Limon, W. Va. He has decided to pop the question to his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), a somewhat grittier stoner of a bail-bonds clerk. Mike’s plan to propose in Hawaii hits a snag when his phobia about leaving that non-descript hamlet kicks in. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to Mike, his attempt has done more than just made Phoebe unhappy, it’s triggered an alarm at the CIA, which, in turn, has triggered a typically sociopathic response from the smarmy division chief (Topher Grace) with the power, but not the scruples, to run an effective black ops experiment. This, in turn, sends a mysterious woman (Connie Britton) to Mike’s convenience store, where, as he doodles the time away, places a cup of instant noodles in front of him, and solemnly intones random phrases about Mandelbrot sets and cherry programs.
And then perfect strangers start trying to kill him.
That, of course, is less surprising to him than his sudden abilities to drop his assailants using only a spoon. As Mike tries to keep himself and Phoebe alive, he tries to piece together what is happening to him, and his startling responses to it with the help of his friend and pot-supplier, flamboyant gangsta wannabe, Rose (John Leguizamo), and that of the mysterious woman who shows up again and with information almost as disturbing as the army of agents hunting him down.
Mike could have been written with Eisenberg in mind, his ineffectual skittishness and that hint of darkness to the sweetness that lets Mike have the uncontrolled reflexes of a coldly efficient killer and the helpful personality of a guy who will point out a gun to the bad guy at just the wrong moment. He is infinitely shocked by what he can do, but just a little delighted, too. It’s as if he is finally the coolest guy in the room and it feels good, even if there is a LOT of blood spilling on the floor as a result.
Comedy though this is, it is one rife with palpable danger and no guarantees about who will make it out alive with the exception of Mike, who starts the film being questioned about what happened, providing snippets of flashback that foreshadow what will come. Eisenberg’s choices in playing Mike without a trace of irony works in the film’s favor, as does Stewart’s grittiness and edge as a woman who refuses to take it lying down when the world is trying to kill the man she loves, or when he starts cracking up about the possibility that he might be a robot and not a human being. And kudos to both of them for the sheer chutzpah of allowing themselves to be filmed in an extended sequence illuminated only by black lights.
Chaos ensues, as Mike continues to find the right moment to pop the question to Phoebe, factions square off to pulverize one another, bizarre cover stories about why Limon has been quarantined are fed to the media, and the moral compass of a pooch-loving CIA flunky (Tony Hale) with self-esteem issues is tested to its limits. But it’s chaos done crisply, with absurdity and terror parceled out in efficient dollops and with equally efficient aplomb, a style that finds its best expression in Laugher (Walton Goggins), a CIA assassin who really loves his lethal work.
AMERICAN ULTRA lacks the focus that would have made it a great film, instead being on that is merely interesting. And one that will forever change the way you think about cutlery.