Jesse Eisenberg, ladies and gentlemen.
He wowed us as the coolly exploitative Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and seems likely to do the same as a more intense, somewhat less omnivorous Lex Luthor in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Say what you want about Gene Hackman’s toupee-wearing huckster and Kevin Spacey’s archly terrifying sadist, they sure did love the taste of scenery.
For now, though, there’s American Ultra, the second film from Project X’s Nima Nourizadeh, starring Eisenberg as – you may have guessed it – a neurotic schlub. But there’s more to this indie action comedy than just Adventureland with guns.
Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a long-haired, perennially plaid-clothed stoner who lives with his supportive girlfriend Phoebe (fellow Adventureland alum Kristen Stewart) in Liman, small-town Pennsylvania. He works in a convenience store, is working on a comic book – which, btw, I’d totally read if you’re planning on releasing it, guys – and suffers panic attacks whenever he tries to leave town.
Despite his plan to propose to Phoebe, his life seems to be going nowhere. Then CIA project manager Victoria Lasser (Spin City‘s Connie Britton) arrives in Liman and with one simple phrase – well, not quite so simple – everything changes. Well, not *exactly* everything.
Even when unwitting sleeper agent Mike is taking on the coterie of psychopaths whom the smug, preppy Yates (Topher Grace) has sent to kill him, brutalizing them with fist, feet, and the occasional item of cutlery (Jason Bourne and Alan Rickman eat your hearts out). Mike seems perplexed at his new-found skill-set, caught between his long-suppressed government training5 and 4/20-24/7 lifestyle. He’s also confused to realize he suddenly knows a lot about tanks.
Reminding us just how likeable he can be playing an out-of-his-depth sad-sack, Eisenberg captures the gory/goofy heart and humor of Mike’s predicament. After brutally eliminating two guys in a parking lot, he pads his feet up and down like a toddler, begging Phoebe to come and help before he starts pissing himself.
Stewart is equally compelling as the exasperated but loving Phoebe (“If the guy in the cell doesn’t see the gun don’t point at it and say ‘Gun'”!). Her slightly glazed look is perfect for the seemingly good-natured stoner chick.
Bullets tear through the cinder-block walls and plate-glass of ugly, urbanized rurality – Twin Peaks this ain’t – meeting flesh in extravagant gouts of blood. One police station shootout makes massacre in The Terminator seem sedate.
Ingeniously scripted by Chronicles‘ Max Landis, and with John Leguizamo as Mike’s flamboyant, paranoid dealer, Tony Hale in support as a typically eager-to-please subordinate (see also: Veep), and Walton Goggins as the aptly named Laugher (think a psychotic version of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber with an extra streak of sad puppy), it feels like almost everyone could be a reject from some ill-conceived MK Ultra spinoff.
Marco Zavos’ narcotic, electronic-dance score, featuring the likes of The Chemical Brothers, perfectly suits the film’s grungy, indie vibe, as does Michael Bonvillain’s stark yet beautiful cinematography, which includes the use of black light, and full credit to Nourizadeh himself who, with a quirky eye for detail, keeps the whole thing moving deliriously forwards.
With a budget of only $28 million, American Ultra certainly seems like good value, bringing a more offbeat (if not quite art-house) sensibility to violent action. The store-bound finale is essentially a more inventive, less vengeful version of the climax from The Equalizer. It hopefully makes a case for the more experimental mid-budget release that’s been so wanting in recent years.
Time will tell if the risk has paid off in the box office, but American Ultra goes to prove that as long as you have a concept and the right tools you don’t need hundreds of millions – or giant exploding robots – to get your audience hooked.