We meet Mike (Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Stewart) when they’re at the airport waiting to board their plane for a vacation in Hawaii. That is, we meet Phoebe waiting intently; Mike is in the men’s room in the midst of a panic attack. It’s clear he’s a bit of a wuss and a stoner, but Phoebe is incredibly patient with him until they get back home and the trip has been aborted. Then he begins to fray on her nerves. Without knowing much about the film beforehand, one would think this is going to be a love story in which he learns to step up to the plate.
But soon after, mysterious (dangerous) things begin to happen. A strange older woman comes into the cash and carry store where he works, and seems to be giving him a warning, but it’s all gobbledy gook to him, and he just thinks she’s strange and needs to go—which she does, leaving behind the soup and drink she had picked up to buy. Then he sees two men messing with his car, and he goes out to run them off, but they have guns and his life is in danger.
Obviously, there is more to this than a simple love story; it involves the CIA’s secret operations and revelations about Mike’s own past, as well as others’. It’s a bit disorienting to notice that he often seems clueless, but somehow he knows how to handle himself in a fight, and has background knowledge about things he has no recollection learning. Through it all he is resistant to take action except when he is threatened, and uppermost in his mind is getting to go back home with Phoebe.
As the revelations keep coming, and his life is threatened more and more, he learns something about Phoebe that makes him question even her and her motives. And you really wonder whether this man is going to survive at all.
But Eisenberg, who has received high marks in a number of hits (The End of the Tour, The Social Network, Zombieland, The Squid and the Whale) is a wonder in pulling off his character in American Ultra. At times, addled, neurotic, and clumsy, he still is able to make Phoebe laugh at his humor (he even draws cartoons) and see him as the kindest person alive. And then you the viewer watch him in combat, and go “Whoa!”
Stewart is impressing most viewers with her talent recently (namely in Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice), and she is just as good here, merging into a more and more complex role as the story proceeds. She is essential in helping us see Mike’s character.
Smaller, but critical roles are played by Connie Britton, Topher Grace (ah, how you’ll love to hate him!), John Leguizamo (as a colorful paranoid drug dealer with good intentions), Walter Goggins (who ever heard of a bad guy who breaks out in peals of laughter?), and Bill Pullman (who gives an ugly twist to government insurgence.
Although this film directed by Nima Nourizadeh is clearly meant to be a fun caper—which it is!—it does make serious statements about the U.S. government and its recent history of overstepping boundaries and keeping tabs on American citizens. So with the spoof, maybe we need to keep a vigilant eye on its workings.
Surprises keep unraveling in this “love story” within an action film.