American Ultra Review: Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart Shine in an Excellent Technothriller

By Annalee Newitz on at

If you love action and futuristic conspiracies, you can skip the blockbuster sequels this weekend and head straight for the funny, fiendish flick American Ultra. It’s billed as a stoner comedy, but this weird secret agent, mind control ninja story is so much better than that.

American Ultra stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mike, a twenty-something geek who just wants to draw indie comics, smoke dope, and hang out with his awesome girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in their podunk southern town.

The Best Technothriller of the Weekend is American Ultra

He whiles away the days working at a shop, rolling joints and drawing the hyper-violent adventures of a giant ape who fights crime. Until one day, a woman in dark glasses comes into the store, utters a secret phrase, and the skinny, neurotic Mike suddenly finds himself killing heavily-armoured intelligence agents with his bare hands.

“Wait, why do I suddenly know everything about tanks? And weapons?” he asks Phoebe, bewildered. And so begins the mystery of who Mike really is ... and why he can never quite bring himself to leave town, or remember anything about his childhood.

In a pleasing twist on the now-cliched “nerd as secret weapon” plot, Mike’s superpower isn’t that his brain has been injected with a database or turned into some kind of networked computer. Instead, his body is his weapon. Somehow, a secret government agency has discovered a way to turn this dorky guy into deadly supersoldier who can kill men twice his size with a spoon. And don’t even get me started on what he can do with actual firearms. If you loved Eisenberg in Zombieland, you’ll get a taste of that performance here too.

The Best Technothriller of the Weekend is American Ultra

Unfortunately, the government has decided to shut down the program that created Mike, which means shutting down Mike too. But seasoned agent Victoria (Connie Britton) — who created Mike in the first place — doesn’t want to see her “puppy” tossed in the lake just yet. To stay alive, Mike’s going to have to figure out his powers, with help from Victoria and Phoebe.

A lot of the humour in the film comes from the script by Max Landis, who makes Mike feel like a real guy wrestling with something that seems utterly impossible. There are some great one-liners here, and excellent, crackly interplay between Eisenberg, Stewart, and Britton, who steals the show as the one person who actually understands what’s going on and knows how to deal with it.

The Best Technothriller of the Weekend is American Ultra

The movie’s not perfect — some of the characters do feel a little like stock comedy gags. You’ve got the zany gangsta friend (a horribly misused John Leguizamo), the overconfident-but-untested agent who doesn’t get that Mike is really dangerous (Topher Grace, ho hum) ... and they both make the story sag every time they walk onscreen. Plus, Eisenberg’s “but I’m a really nervous nerd” routine gets old by the fifteenth time he whips it out.

The Best Technothriller of the Weekend is American Ultra

That said, this is a solid, fun little comedy with great action sequences. And Stewart really shines — her character only gets more interesting as the movie progresses. This is a technothriller that doesn’t aim high, and that’s a good thing. It succeeds because it’s not trying to be some giant franchise. American Ultra just wants to tell a few jokes, smash a few teeth in, and leave you feeling entertained.