American Ultra is the rare case of two stellar actors elevating material that could get lost without them. Those two actors would be Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. I know, it’s popular to despise them both or think they’ve gotten where they are due to luck and limited skill sets. That thinking is wrong.
American Ultra follows Mike and Phoebe, an impoverished pair of lovers doing what they can to get by. She is patient with him; he has panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving town. Just as we’re getting to know them, viewers are whisked away to C.I.A. Headquarters, where Yates (Topher Grace) is shutting down a program of brainwashed operatives once run by Lasseter (Connie Britton). Mike is on the hit list, and to save him, Lasseter has to trigger him into remembering his agency training.
Events spiral out of control, and Mike is soon using everyday objects to murder his would-be assassins. I counted a spoon, a dustpan, and I think even a package of tortillas as deadly weapons. After the violence, Mike returns to being panicky and unsure of himself. Phoebe handles and helps him through it, getting a few punches of her own in along the way.
Eisenberg earned an Oscar nomination for his leading role in The Social Network, but being cast as Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice seems to have turned many back against him.
Think what you want, but there’s one scene in American Ultra where Eisenberg cuts through the blood and the tears with just a look. His performance becomes a creature all its own, something pulsing and angry and confused and viciously dangerous. The film can’t rely on this – it needs Eisenberg to pace back and forth nervously between action scenes and make us laugh. Yet Eisenberg knows when to step on the gas and when to let off.
Stewart is even more complicated. She’s treated as toxic by an industry in which she launched two major franchises (Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman) by the age of 22. We’ve covered why before, and it’s one of the most egregious double standards Hollywood’s offered in recent years.
Hate Stewart if you want, but you’re missing one of the most dynamic shifts into independent film in recent history. She is slaughtering dramatic and comedic roles left, right, and center, finding the chemistry, timing, and emotional nuance that was drained from her characters in mainstream roles. With Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria, Still Alice, and now American Ultra, she’s in the middle of an impressive two-year stretch. She’s good. She might even be great one day.
Eisenberg and Stewart sell this off-kilter material beautifully together. They believe in the movie’s reality so intensely, they cover up for many of the film’s seams. They’re assisted by comedy veterans like John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug dealer and Tony Hale as a C.I.A. agent torn in his loyalties.
If you watch American Ultra as a straight action movie or comedy, you’ll find it uneven. It’s a film you can’t take too seriously. If you watch it as a romance and a chance for two actors to power their way through a mash-up of a half-dozen genres, it may leave you touched and impressed.
American Ultra ends up doing many things that The Man from UNCLE couldn’t get right. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is palpable. While their styles are vastly different, this film is more consistent and coherent. It’s a violent, occasionally comedic metaphor for the struggles we go through in opening up and learning to trust during relationships. On that level, it works beautifully and it can hit the heart in strange ways. If anything, it’s a sly update on a film like Grosse Pointe Blank, using spy movie tropes as a way of talking about the growing up we have to do in life.
In many ways, this is what I wish films like Kingsman: The Secret Service, Wanted, Pineapple Express, and Shoot ‘Em Up could have achieved: a reason for being. While they were focused on slick explosions and fancy choreography and other things I’ll admit I love, none of them left me thinking positively about them later that day. They were wastes of time and, though it lacks their level of polish, American Ultra is a better film with more heart than all of them combined. It even achieves that brief, “Look at what they make you give” moment better than The Bourne Ultimatum did (though that’s a better film in almost every other regard).
It won’t be for everybody, but for those willing to jump on a violent indie action comedy that would fit at home in the late 90s or early 00s, this is your cup of tea.
Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?
This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.
Does American Ultra have more than one woman in it?
Yes. Kristen Stewart plays Phoebe. Connie Britton plays Lasseter. Monique Ganderton plays Crane. Other unnamed speaking roles include Rachel Wulff as a CNN reporter.
Do they talk to each other?
No. (They do help beat someone up together once, so there’s that.)
About something other than a man?
The question doesn’t apply if women don’t talk to each other in the film, but when they talk to men, they’re usually discussing the plot or plans about what to do next.
American Ultra could’ve and should’ve done a lot better here. Stewart gets the chance to talk to many supporting characters who are men, but none who are women. The movie simply fails here, and it’s not very consistent about how tough Stewart’s and Lasseter’s characters are.
Very minor changes could have made this film more balanced and more communicative between women. The world of the film is also overwhelmingly populated by men.
Topher Grace’s Yates is incredibly misogynist, to boot. While it’s fun to hate Topher Grace and it makes us want to see him get his comeuppance that much more, the movie relies on this facet as a shortcut to building a fairly thin villain.
It’s a problematic movie when it comes to the representation of women. As always, one can still like a movie that has problems of any sort, but being aware of and discussing those problems and why they exist is an important part of being a viewer. American Ultra needed to do better here.