American Ultra (2015): A Funny Subversion of Spy Thrillers
In an industry chalked full of super serious spy movies with world ending stakes, I could not help but be intrigued with the spy action comedy, American Ultra, which surprisingly lost at the box office to one of the most maligned spy films of all time, Hitman: Agent 47. That is a tragedy, and more people should get invested into American Ultra, which is now available on Netflix.
Mike Howell (played by Jesse Eisenberg) is a small town stoner working a dead end job at a convenience store. His girlfriend Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart), is just as aimless as him but they are in love so they make it work. One day after returning from an attempted vacation, Mike is visited by a mysterious stranger who speaks gibberish and later that night catches several thugs trying to rig his car. However, the gibberish spoken by this stranger activates dormant fighting skills he has and ultimately kills both thugs with a freaking spoon. It just so happens that Howell is a weapon created by the CIA as a way to get time off a misdemeanor offense. With his newfound abilities, Mike and his girlfriend must survive a night in their normally quiet small town as the CIA sends every assassin to terminate the two of them.
Alright, you know when I first saw the marketing for this film, I thought it was gonna be a knock off Seth Rogen stoner comedy, as the stoner aspect of the film was marketed heavily even though it has literally nothing to do with the plot. He’s a stoner yes, but he isn’t a slacker or irresponsible, it's just a given part of the film that isn’t made a big deal of or part of the comedy of spy aspects. The actual film shows the action comedy and spy aspects, sometimes altogether but they weren’t a part of the marketing as much. Making this seem like a mediocre film that studios needed to get off their shelf to make room for more profitable projects.
The action throughout the film is pretty standard for any action film, however, it is the execution of said action that sets it apart from more well known action thrillers. As many of the set pieces really steer into both comedy and style. For example, the first time Howell kills two agents with a cup of hot water and a spoon is just plain hilarious and jaw dropping. Which succeeds with how quickly out of left field it comes and that it leaves just as quickly. Watching it happen that fast barely gives us time to process what happened, but it is executed well due to the fact that Mike is also as surprised as us when the incident happens; making it even more of a gut busting scene.
I also really love the approach they took with the secret super spy trope, as Mike is a nobody from a dead end town who was trained by the CIA to be a killing machine. He acts like Jason Bourne from The Bourne Identity in a sense. Not the amnesia part, but the fact that Howell is on a path of self discovery and identity as soon as his killer instincts are activated. It actually works better than most other tropes that other films have since parodied and dissected, having Howell learn along with the audience about what he is capable of. Which is not an easy feat, as many others use the trope effectively, but American Ultra has the added pressure of making the spy trope funny and fresh rather than the usual gritty serious vibes.
Another aspect of the film that I absolutely love is the relationship between characters Mike and Phoebe and the chemistry between actors Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. Both actors really enjoy each other's company on screen which makes their connection feel more genuine, especially when they go through quite a few rough patches. Whether it be with Howell dealing with an anxiety attack in an airport, or finding out the truth about Phoebe's past. Their love shines through and truly makes you root for their relationship to grow even more by the end of the film. It also helps that Stewart and Eisenberg have previously worked together as love interests before on the comedy Adventureland, almost feeling like a spiritual sequel if their characters actually worked for the CIA.
What takes this movie better than other films that try too hard, is that American Ultra does not care! They don't have much in the way of character development but rather, the film team was more interested in telling a fun story. And you can tell, everyone is having an absolute blast. Topher Grace who plays the main antagonist is just giving everything into delivering an over the top performance without making the baddie a caricature. Plus, the comedy just hits so well, it perfectly explains each character's personality as well. From Howell making oddly stupid yet relatable decisions, to Connie Nielsen’s straight woman, deadpan kind of humor. All the comedy in this film just works, and again only works because of how much the creators do not care about seriousness.
Thank goodness this film was not another super serious super spy film, we have enough of those, but American Ultra takes pride in being different. It does act more as a romantic comedy than a spy thriller to which I say, I’m not complaining. There is so much fun to be had while watching it and it certainly helps that Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg have fantastic chemistry to keep me rooting for these two spies turned lovers. All the action, the comedy that mostly lands, and a love story at its heart, American Ultra’s re-watchability will hopefully help the film become a future comedy classic!