American Ultra (2015)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Nima Nourizadeh
Run Time
1 hour and 35 minutes

VP Content Ratings

Star Rating
★★★3.5 out of 5

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 35 min. Our content ratings (1-10);

Violence 8; Language 8; Sex 8/Nudity 2.

Our star Rating (1-5): 3.5

 They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made.

Their mischief returns upon their own heads,

 and on their own heads their violence descends.

Psalm 7:15-16

Iranian-British director Nima Nourizadeh’s second film (after Project X) is as ultra violent as a Quentin Tarentino film, and also, as with the American’s films, as filled with touches of humor. At the screening I attended the large audience frequently broke out in laughter as the clueless hero makes discovery after discovery about his past. Set in the small West Virginia town of Liman, the story is about a stoner named Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) who during the day smokes marijuana and at night works as a clerk at a convenience which never seems to have any customers until one night when—but more about that later.

Mike’s live-in girl friend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) seems like an enabler, putting up with his drug habit and indulging him far beyond what we might expect. For example, we see them at the airport about to board the plane that will transport them to their long desired vacation in Hawaii, but Mike has a panic attack that sends him to the bathroom where he vomits. The “last call” has come and gone by the time he rejoins Phoebe. Guilt-ridden, he is puzzled as to why she does not break out in recriminations for his failure. It seems that every time they try to leave town he gets a panic attack. Phoebe remains calm, not uttering a word of reproach. Mike keeps concealed a cheap engagement ring, trying to find the right moment to present it to her. Because of his drug use Mike has had run-ins with the sheriff, who tells Phoebe, “You’re his girlfriend, you’re his mom, you’re his maid, you’re his landlady.” All very true.

Then comes the life-changing night when the trench coat-wearing Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) comes up to the counter of the store and says in an anxious voice, “Chariot progressive. Listen. Mandelbrot set is in motion. Echo Choir has been breached, we are fielding the ball.” Mike is totally puzzled, but she does not hang around to explain herself. What we know by now, but Mike does not, is that she is a mid-level CIA agent whose conscience has led her to risk career and life to save him. Mike was part of an expensive experiment under her oversight to turn petty criminals through bio-engineering into super agents. It had not gone well, Mike being the lone survivor, so his memory has been erased, and he has been confined to the small town where, if he tried to leave, a panic attack would be induced. Victoria’s younger rival at the CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) thinks that all traces of the competing program should be erased, lest it impede the program of transforming hardened criminals into tough operatives that he has set up. Thus he has dispatched a plane load of them to West Virginia to kill Mike. Victoria’s seemingly gibberish is a code that unlocks Mike’s latent abilities to be a super agent.

Thus, when Mike sees two men messing with his car in the parking lot, he is able to repel their attack on him, his lethal weapon dispatching them being the spoon with which he was eating his Cup O’ Noodles supper. Still not aware of his past, and shocked by the two bloodied bodies lying on the pavement, he phones Phoebe, who rushes to join him. Phoebe helps calm him down and drive to the home of his friendly drug supplier Rose (John Leguizamo) in the hope of some help. There follows a long violent night in which Mike uses defensive measures so extreme that beyond anything he could have imagined. He also learns the secret behind Phoebe’s acceptance of his behavior, one that could cause the end of their relationship.

As Yates’ trained killers and their vicious attack dogs fail to kill Mike and Phoebe, he sends a drone equipped with such deadly weapons that it could destroy the whole town. Victoria insists on staying in the town in order to help Mike and Phoebe survive. Whether or not the drone will be activated is up to a wimp of an agent back at Langley named Petey Douglas (Tony Hale). Through their cell phones Yates and Victoria pull Petey in opposite directions, Yates using fear of losing his career, and Victoria appealing to his conscience. The struggle leaves him comically sprawled across a table bawling like a baby.

Like so many action films, the feats of our hero are more in the realm of fantasy than reality, and if you can go along with the filmmaker’s devaluation of lives destroyed by the violence, highly entertaining. (In this fantasy world the Golden Rule has to be set aside for the Law of Survival of the Fittest.) Mike pulls off one fantastical trick when he takes shelter behind a counter in a commercial kitchen while a bad guy sprays the room with bullets from his assault rifle. To stick up his head so he can return fire would be suicidal—even the always poor marksman in such a movie culd not fail to hit him. So, Mike tosses a large skillet high into the air. Just as it starts to fall back, and has turned at just the correct angle, he shoots at it with the pistol he has taken from a dead killer. The bullet richocets off the skillet’s base and hits the would be assassin. (Laughter from the audience. Try that, Annie Oakley!) A few hours earlier Mike would have gaped at this feat in unbelief, but by now he has killed so many bad guys in unorthodox ways that he takes it in stride. He will do even greater feats against a whole squad of killers in a WalMart-like super store.

With so much gory violence I was surprised by one moment of humanity in an almost soul-less tale. One of the killers, Laugher (Walton Groggins), is especially creepy because bullets have shot away his center teeth leaving a jagged hole whenever he smiles. He looks like he stepped out of a zombie or vampire movie. He and Mike meet at last face to face in an aisle of the superstore. They stare at each other, their guns poised…(Note, I wrote “almost soul-less” because what proves to be a key character is Virginia Lasseter, whose conscience is so well developed that she risks her life, as well as her career, to save what Adrian Yates considers is worthless “collateral.”)

This is not a film that I want to see again, and yet due to the fact that it will probably become very popular, I am glad I did so as to keep abreast of the public. Despite my aversion to violence, I found myself laughing along with the delighted audience. At the climax Mike makes on bended knee with that ring held out to Phoebe what must be the most bizarre marriage proposals ever made in a comedy! Will its stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who work so well together, be signing contracts for a sequel? Is Hollywood interested in money?

Another thought that arose from the film’s depiction of CIA agents as being so ruthless and callous (Bill Pullman’s cameo as the head of the CIA, or at least as a very senior official enters here) is that there is a PhD thesis for someone willing to watch a pack of films about the C.I.A., going back to the 1946 film O.S.S., a fictional tale about the World War 2 agency The Office of Strategic Services that was one of the predecessors of the C.I.A. The host of films dealing with the agency have moved from depicting it as fighting against the tyrannical Soviets and their ruthless values to one in which some agents abuse their power and threaten democratic values. In recent films it is often seen as abandoning the side of the angels and promoting the other side of Good and Evil. This is not just a matter for academics and movie buffs, but also one for all concerned about freedom. Two other films reviewed in this issue connect with this– The Stanford Prison Experiment and M.I. Rogue Nation. The first shows what can happen to those who are given power over others that are not well monitored. In the second a Congressional Committee wants to defund a CIA group about which its had refuses to provide any information because it is classified, The Impossible Missions Services The chief operative of the IMF is Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt, so we are lead to believe that the members of the Congressional committee are just a bunch of ignorant politicians—but what if Hunt is replaced by Adrian Yates?

 This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Sept. 2015 issue of VP.


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