The ultraviolent comedy found its patron saint in the 1990s with Quentin Tarantino, who inspired an unfortunate abundance of imitators (call them Reservoir Pups). We've seen some passable entries since, including Grosse Pointe Blank (hit man goes to his high school reunion), and Pineapple Express, which brought the strain of weed into the mix.
That's where we find American Ultra, the new stoner, CIA-assassin-brainwash romantic comedy that gets credit for knowing exactly what it wants to do, and then doing it with a blend of brute force and surprising tenderness. Fast on its feet and eager to skip unnecessary exposition, Ultra is a kick from the moment its slacker hero (Jesse Eisenberg) begins to realize he is, in fact, a trained killing machine.
Yes, American Ultra could have been called The Bong Identity.
Eisenberg's Mike Howell passes his time in a small West Virginia town with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), smoking a lot of weed and suffering from severe panic attacks whenever he wants to go anywhere. Then, one night near the end of his convenience store shift, he fends off a couple of assassins, killing one of them with a spoon. This seems creative at the time, until the movie progresses and he takes someone out with with a dustpan. Mike is nothing if not a model of utilitarianism.
The film is written by Max Landis, son of horror-comedy alchemist John Landis, and it playfully stuffs in references to The Terminator, Blade Runner, The Manchurian Candidate, the Bourne movies and other favorites. If it's a pastiche, it's a lively one with its own rhythm and twists. Ultra works by making a potentially messy story rather simple, and by using its carnage as an extension of its comedy. It has no interest in piling on plot minutiae. It's too busy getting to the next bit of mayhem.
But for all that violence - and there's quite a bit - American Ultra flashes a vulnerable side throughout. Eisenberg plays Mike not as a stereotypical stoner but a troubled, tightly wound guy who needs to relax. Stewart showcases her rare ability to class up action and genre fare by actually acting. When Mike and Phoebe wrestle with loyalty, memory and identity, they act as if they really mean it. Their relationship provides ballast to balance the rest of the movie's craziness.
The supporting cast sinks its collective teeth into a collection of vivid comic-book characters. Among those who appear to be having a blast: Topher Grace, as an evil CIA stuffed shirt (Grace would make a fine Batman villain); Walton Goggins, as a mental patient-turned-CIA asset called The Laugher; and Connie Britton, as Mike's maternal but steely agency protector.
All the chaos comes to a head with a climactic showdown at a discount store, where the kitchenware aisle proves particularly lethal. By then, if the spirit of American Ultra hasn't grabbed you, you will have long since checked out. But if you've stayed with Mike and Phoebe to that point, you're in for the long haul.
Just stay away from the silverware drawer when you get home.
AMERICAN ULTRA (B+)
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh. R (strong bloody violence and language throughout, drug use and some sexual content). 99 mins. In wide release.