Sometimes great things come from the most unlikely ideas. Like, say, over three decades ago, when Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird riffed over a lazy night of boring television and conceived of four turtles, all teenaged, all trained in the art of ninja, who eat pizza and fight a can opener of an evildoer named Shredder. That idea — ahem, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — has since become a multi-million dollar property that has successfully outlived its ’90s shell, no pun intended. Which is why it’s at times important to relish the quirky pieces of pop culture, even if they sound absolutely rigoddamndiculous.
Enter American Ultra.
This is a film that shouldn’t work — it’s an attempt to mix disparate genres with a grin rather than a laugh — but for all its asinine idiosyncrasies, the stoner action-comedy is an enjoyable piece of pop filmmaking. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) elevates the dubious source material, which boils down to a stoner-turned-government-assassin (Jesse Eisenberg) and his confused girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) being targeted for extermination by the CIA, with a gutsy blend of naturalism and panache. Sure, the stakes are incredulous and the gore’s aplenty, but the action never loses its sense of gravity.
It helps that the film’s localized in the humble town of Liman, West Virginia. Actually, come to think of it, the area is less of a town and more like one of those stops you’re thankful to see after traveling for hours on end with no sign of life. That’s okay, though, because Nourizadeh has a storied history of crafting dazzling music videos, from the likes of Hot Chip to Bat for Lashes to Lily Allen, and he leans on that amplified touch by peppering the film’s intentionally mundane setting with colorful additions that never compromise the idea that you’re essentially in the middle of Nowhere, USA.
There’s the grungy Cash & Carry, where Eisenberg’s Mike Howell works, draws, and cleans to Wang Chung; the sea of decrepit parking lots, begging for souls; and even the Spaghetti Western police station, where a single jail cell awaits. These aren’t ideal dioramas to play in yet the further things spiral out of control, the brighter things tend to get, whether it’s in a DayGlo-glazed gymnasium or under a calvary of fireworks. It’s sexy, it’s exhilarating, and it’s stupid, but stupid works for American Ultra, because there’s always some bleeding heart beating behind every snapped arm and shattered tooth.
Much of this has to do with the built-in chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart. Six years ago, the two chiseled through layers of coarse, post-college angst to find believable and agreeable love in Greg Mottola’s hideously underrated gem, Adventureland. That summertime magic has seen no wear and tear, only now they’re having a little more fun together, what with the blood and guns and deadly home appliances. It’s a charming bond that fuels their THC-baked dialogues or witty barbs and allows for more tranquil, dramatic moments. For instance, when Stewart’s rattled Phoebe Larson tearfully begs Howell to wake up after inhaling dangerous gas halfway into the film, her sense of urgency is quite palpable.
Watching the two snuggle and tussle with one another is half the fun of American Ultra, which isn’t too surprising considering that’s seemingly been the film’s conceit from the get-go. Thankfully, they’re surrounded by an inventive supporting cast that’s having as much fun as we are watching them: An ass-kicking Connie Britton wielding a shotgun will give you teary eyes and a beaming heart. A manic and shirtless John Leguizamo referencing Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain will earn your laughs. And a smarmy and slimy Topher Grace will convince you that he always needs to go smarmy and slimy.
All of these eclectic roles stem from the creative mind of Max Landis (Chronicle), who clearly opted to focus on character over story. This is why the boilerplate government subplot is no more articulated than a ludicrous South Park episode, while the emotional narrative between Howell and Larson bruises like a flavorful indie dramedy. As such, the corollary bunch are admittedly surface-level archetypes, similar to how Schwarzenegger and Stallone were often given chummy comrades or bitter enemies in their heydays.
But, that’s fine and dandy when you have talent like Walton Goggins and Tony Hale filling in those positions. The two shine amongst the fringe as the toothy Laugher and the guileless Agent Petey Douglas, respectively. They’re hardly scene-stealing performances but just enough to make the proceedings fairly memorable, which goes hand in hand with the film’s transparent desire to revisit an age when action wasn’t necessarily complicated or compromised by any cynical realism. You simply needed two strong leads to champion and the rest would fall into place accordingly.
Again, that’s on Eisenberg and Stewart. Because when you step out of their on-screen romance, you’re left with an action thriller that was better executed last year in Adam Wingard’s The Guest and a stoner comedy that was funnier seven years ago in Pineapple Express. To be fair, American Ultra isn’t really concerned with being either of those films, and despite a marketing campaign that weighs heavily on the stoner angle (i.e. “There’s nothing more dangerous than a stoned cold killer”), the film’s not too indebted to weed culture, either. It’s more or less an activity the two leads happen to like doing.
No, American Ultra works best as an alternative love story. One that echoes the lovey-dovey anti-hero sentiments of True Romance while wholly embracing the frivolous and preposterous action of True Lies. It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s unpretentious, and it’s primed for future midnight screenings at home. What’s more, it’s exactly what filmgoers should want after the summer’s barrage of high-octane rollercoasters. Don’t be fooled, American Ultra is also a thrill ride, but more like the oft-forgotten rollercoaster in the back of the park, the one that delivers in ways you didn’t think was possible. It’s a refreshing feeling.