“Unabashed” might seem like a backhanded compliment to bestow upon American Ultra, yet the description seems apt. It’s a film that tries to please in numerous ways – it’s edgy, funny, sexy, droll, violent, and silly all at once. It shouldn’t work at all, yet it does, and for that alone it’s worth celebrating.
That’s not to say that Nima Nourizadeh’s film isn’t without its flaws. After all his previous film is the highly egregious party romp Project X, a film with perhaps the highest douchebag quotient in the last few decades. There’s hints of the excess of that film in Ultra, especially when things go truly over-the-top with dashes of ultraviolence and shakycam revelry. Yet from the opening sequence that plunges us into the madness, through the seemingly genuine connection the leads have with one another, right up to the morally ambiguous conclusion, the film’s got a lot more going for it than one might expect.
Jesse Eisenberg’s making a career at playing awkward and self-deprecating, yet in film after film he seems to manage to find various shades within this archetype. His casting here is kind of perfect, surprisingly believable as he balances the conflicting phases of his character’s behaviour. Kristen Stewart also continues to impress, finding a glimmer of both affection and steely nerve in a role that in lesser hands could have slipped into farce.
Topher Grace’s CIA boss is the closest the film comes to outright two-dimensionality, yet even in that role there seems to be a modicum of motivation behind the madness. Connie Britton, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, John Leguizamo and the rabidly manic Walton Goggins round out the rest of the ensemble, all doing their part well.
The tone of Max Landis’ script reminded me of James Gunn’s Super, another unabashed film that toyed with emotional moments, blood-spurting violence and engaging storylines. While Gunn’s film broke apart the superhero mythos, Landis’ tale flips some hoary spy tropes on their head and does so in oftentimes bravado ways.
Occasionally the film stumbles, falling into slightly more pedestrian action clichés. The rescue from a burning car is a bit redundant, and at some point in time one can’t help but think that some degree of bureaucratic oversight must surely restrict the behaviour of even the most rampant of CIA senior agents.
Still, you forgive much of these elements in favour of falling for that lack of abashedness. It’s a film that simply goes for it, crafting a kind of spree that’s both preposterous and positively fun.
American Ultra tries to be all things to all people, and while this cornucopian approach usually results in something tedious or annoying we’re instead treated to something really quite enjoyable. This may not be the ne plus ultra of the stoner action comedy (that’d be Lebowski, or maybe Pineapple Express) but it’s still one to be celebrated.