Prime Picks: American Ultra

When the trailer for American Ultra came out of nowhere last August, it looked like the typical end-of-summer action fare: a little bizarre, a little funny, and a lot violent; a Jason Bourne-as-stoner action comedy that was perfectly placed in the August doldrums where it could either succeed or fail rather quietly. 

Look out! He has meat!    Photo credit:

Look out! He has meat!   Photo credit:

Although the premise - a drugged-out slacker in a West Virginia small town is actually a sleeper CIA operative - seemed exactly like a Bourne knockoff, I thought it looked like a fun ride, but never made it to theaters when it was out. So I was excited it when it premiered on Amazon Prime recently. 

The oddest thing about American Ultra that I noticed right away is that it wasn't exactly marketed correctly. The trailers made it seem like a hilarious action comedy, which is only partly true. It is funny, very funny, in places, but unlike most comedies, it doesn't actually strive to be funny. The humor naturally comes from the fish-out-of-water situations that Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg, perfectly cast as a neurotic ne'er-do-well constantly apologizing to people even as he's bashing in their skulls) and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stweart, showing remarkable rage undreamed of in her Twilight days) find themselves in. We learn early on that Mike is the lone success from a shuttered CIA super-soldier experiment now targeted for extinction by an overeager desk jockey (Topher Grace, possibly the funniest in the film with his unfettered filth and contempt for incompetence). Luckily for Mike, the former chief of his Ultra program, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton in an action film, yes!), gets an anonymous tip that he's about to be eliminated and activates him, unbeknownst to the many CIA agents now trying to track him down.  

Therein lies the comedy, as Mike, who suffers from so much anxiety that he can't even board a plane out of town and can't stay focused on cooking an omelette long enough to save it from burning, is now taking out trained field operatives by stabbing spoons into their necks. But it takes awhile for the film to get there, and the rest of the set-up is actually quite a tense thriller and a surprisingly sweet love story between Mike and Phoebe. Of course, as in all movies about shadowy government agents, nothing here is quite what it seems, but the film thankfully never gets distracted from its main premise, which is Mike uncovering who he really is. 

Unquestionably, this is a Bourne knockoff, in more ways than one. The violence may be bloodier, but it's filmed in the same gritty, in-your-face style, and it plays its hero's predicaments for laughs rather than suspense. Watching it, I was also reminded of the original Die Hard, which is famously praised for its realistic portrayal of the consequences of violence. Mike and Phoebe do not walk away unscathed, and in fact I think the film should be praised for not fearing to smudge Stewart's eye makeup. Phoebe is also thankfully not a helpless bystander or damsel in distress, but actually comes to Mike's rescue more than once. It's clear that they actually need each other to survive, not just that she needs him, which is a welcome change to action films with male and female protagonists. 

If you don't mind a little blood and need a break from the Bourne franchise (and who wouldn't after this summer's fifth entry?), I highly recommend American Ultra, available now on Amazon Prime Video.