Like history, movies have a way of repeating themselves, first as tragedy, second as farce. A Bourne movie turned just askew enough to be funny, American Ultra trains a bemused eye on a trope ripe for a ribbing. Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), an ur-slacker convenience-store clerk and stoner, is happily stuck in the slow lane, worried about little more than the panic attacks that prevent him from taking his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), to Hawaii—or, for that matter, anywhere other than their small West Virginia town. But, as we learn long before he does, which lets us laugh at his growing befuddlement rather than sharing it, Mike is actually a deactivated C.I.A. operative. Trained as a fighter for a secret program, he’s been targeted for extinction by a new boss (Topher Grace as a silky, dead-eyed sociopath) who wants to get rid of all remaining evidence of the now-discontinued program.
Screenwriter Max Landis is skilled at playing both sides of a fence. He honors the genre even while spoofing it, as in Mike fighting his way out of a kitchen he’s cornered in by throwing a skillet up into the air, then ricocheting a bullet off the pan at just the right angle to kill an attacker who’s blasting away at him from the living room. The filmmakers also make Mike clueless enough to be funny, yet likeable enough to be the viewer’s proxy. Watching the shit storm that threatens to engulf him through Mike’s eyes lets us pause every so often to chuckle at intense speeches, humorless characters, or over-the-top knife fights and shootouts and explosions, like when a deadpan Mike, stunned by his own actions after killing the guy in his living room, says, “Oh. The old, uh, frying-pan bullet trick.”
Eisenberg’s steely nerdiness helps give the film emotional resonance, as it did Zombieland, another slyly affectionate spoof in which his character uncovers survival skills that surprise even him. With a mop of shaggy hair atop his thin body that makes him look like one of the cartoon characters Mike likes to draw, the actor dials up his usual nervous sensitivity while reserving the supercilious feeling of superiority his characters so often radiate for the triumphal final scene, giving Mike a befuddled haplessness and slow-dawning self-awareness. Stewart, meanwhile, starts out warm and relatable, helping to win our sympathy for her rabbity boyfriend simply by deeming him worthy, then unveils intriguing layers of sadness, regret, righteous fury, and, in a confusing ending that seems to subvert everything that came before, what may even be femme-fatale deceptiveness—along with some pretty solid martial-arts moves.
Though American Ultra isn’t another comic book turned movie, there’s a cartoony feel to it, and not just because of the cartoons that Mike draws and the film sometimes animates. The spectacular action and stylized sets, like the blacklit basement where Mike and Phoebe briefly hide out or the underlit womb of a house where they live, can feel overdone, but the actors keep things just real enough. Tony Hale uses the wide-eyed manchild persona he perfected on Arrested Development and Veep to give the exaggerated agonies and melodramatic triumph of his bullied C.I.A. underling a touch of poignancy. As a villain nicknamed Laugher, Walter Goggins is scarier than Heath Ledger’s Joker because he feels a little realer, his cackling psychotic almost believable as a mental patient turned super-villain by another top-secret C.I.A. program. Like nearly everyone else in this talented cast (except Stewart, who plays it straight down the line), they nudge their characters over the line from realism into farce while staying close enough to the edge to keep the audience emotionally engaged.