Two folks best known for non-horror, found-footage films have come together to make a (non-found-footage) action-comedy that turns out to be a real hoot. Director Nima Nourizadeh (PROJECT X) and writer Max Landis (CHRONICLE) deliver upon us AMERICAN ULTRA, a very funny take on the "programmed" government agent storyline, in which dedicated West Virginia stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) suddenly finds himself possessing special abilities that are unknown even to him until they kick in instinctually after years of doing nothing but work in a convenience store and living with his patient girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).
When the powers that be at the CIA who originally put Mike through the Ultra program decide that he's too dangerous to be left to live, new Agency top dog Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) order Mike to be put down like a rapid dog. The agent who supervised Mike, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) doesn't agree with the decision, and she makes contact with Mike to activate him using code words that don't seem to work because smoking an amazing amount of pot over the years has fried his synapses. But when he's attacked, it turns out that his training as an agent kick in without him understanding why, and he ends up making short work of two assassins, using only a cup of instant soup and a spoon. Even Mike is amazed and horrified at what he's done and how much information has suddenly flooded into his brain, despite him having no knowledge of learning any of it.
A big part of the reason AMERICAN ULTRA succeeds is a stellar supporting cast, including John Leguizamo as Mike's uber-paranoid criminal friend Rose, whom he goes to for protection when he feels the entire CIA is out to kill him; Walton Goggins as a demented assassin named Laugher, who has a final-scene reveal that is so out of left field that I was legitimately stunned at the turn; Tony Hale as Victoria's only loyal friend inside the Agency; and the always-welcome Bill Pullman as a CIA top brass whose role here I won't expose. The cast is a veritable who's who of actors you can rely on to make a solid, quick impression on audiences and can flesh out any character well beyond what's on the page—and I say that being genuinely impressed with Landis's screenplay.
The bulk of the film is just Mike and Phoebe going from location to location in their small town trying not to get killed, with considerable assistance from Mike's insane fighting abilities. Sometimes Victoria is there to assist; sometimes not. The film's biggest flaw is how broadly Grace's Yates is drawn and acted. I realize there are asshole bosses all over the world, but he never gives any solid justification for wanting Mike so maliciously wiped out, and it hurts the film just a little.
Then there's this sweet little love story tucked away in the middle of AMERICAN ULTRA. Mike has an engagement ring he wants to find the right time to give Phoebe, and he keeps pulling it out of his pocket at all the wrong times only to be thwarted before she realizes what's happening. Stewart is especially good here as the slightly more responsible, supportive girlfriend that Mike knows he's lucky to have in his life. And if she seems to you to be almost too good to be true, you should hold onto that instinct. Stewart and Eisenberg had such strong chemistry in 2009's ADVENTURELAND, and it has only grown exponentially since then. He's a slightly lost, damaged bear cub drawing his comic book characters and dealing with anxiety; she's mama bear keeping the harsh world at bay. Sounds silly, I know, but it's really sweet.
I should also mention that AMERICAN ULTRA is insanely violent, and that's not a criticism—just a warning. Head shots are like the film's second language, and there are all types of creative, skillful, efficient, and nasty ways that people get taken out. Some of these methods are extremely funny, while others are just about shooting as much blood across the screen as possible. If you're into that sort of thing (which I am), you'll be in a certain type of heaven. I thought this movie was great. It's a perfect blend of funny and hard-hitting action, with some great actors on point, all of which should make genre fans quite giddy.