Tuesday, August 18, 2015
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 CIA 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. Read the rest in Slant Magazine