American Ultra (2015)
August 22, 2015 8:08 PM - Subscribe

A stoner - who is in fact a government agent - is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he's too well-trained and too high for them to handle.

So once upon a time there was this "Operation Wiseman" program that recruited third strikers into the government and trained them to be assassins. Our hero, Mike, was the lone success in the program apparently, but it still got retired and Mike was put out to pasture in Liman, West Virginia and given a panic attack disorder every time he wants to leave town. He's a lameass stoner working at a shitty convenience store now, but madly in love with his girlfriend Phoebe and suspecting she could have a better life if she wasn't with a guy too lame to fly on a plane or not burn the omelet. Little does he know there's a reason why he doesn't remember life without Phoebe, or that she may have some other reasons for staying with someone who seems so lame on paper.

Anyway, the lady running the program, Victoria (Connie Britton), seems to have fallen down the political ladder and now Yates, played by Topher Grace, has decided to straight up assassinate Mike for repeatedly attempting to leave town (he wants to propose to Phoebe in the tropics). Victoria gets an anonymous "courtesy call" about this and goes down to Liman to activate Mike's blocked killing skills, so when two guys show up to tamper with his car and stab him, he manages to take them out by, among other things, stabbing a guy in his carotid with his ramen soup spoon.

Mike calls Phoebe and they go on the run, trying to hole up with his drug dealer even as Yates makes sure everyone (including Victoria) is trapped in Liman. The entire police force is killed, and Yates brings in a bunch of his own insane elite hit men. Mayhem ensues, along with a surprisingly kinda sweet relationship between Mike and Phoebe.
posted by jenfullmoon (14 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well...I was rather touched by Mike's love for Phoebe, and hers for him. The beginning of this gave me a few flashbacks to when I used to date, hah. He was so sweet and so sad, knowing he was dragging her down (though not to what extent). And I loved that flower ring he got her. Phoebe sticking with a guy who at this point technically is a giant loser who can't even leave town is also both touching and sad, but it does get turned on its head when you find out that yes, she knew what he used to be like. She even knew the poor guy was incapable of leaving for Hawaii due to brainwashing ahead of time, which puts a different spin on that scene. So overall, I liked those two together in that movie.

On the other hand, I don't think the CIA works like that, and I don't just mean the easy brainwashing. Topher Grace being all "I'm gonna send a bunch of assassins to shoot a guy just because he tried to leave town" was douchey, everything he did was douchey and seemed highly unlikely to be something the CIA would be cool with (sure, let's recruit people from mental asylums when just recruiting sane criminals didn't work so well!), I kinda doubt the CIA would go as far as they did in dealing with him, etc. Oh brother. Poor Connie Britton was trying to make it seem smarter, but it's not so much.

Did enjoy Mike killing people with whatever random items he had around, though.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:56 PM on August 22, 2015

I liked this movie way more than I thought I would. I thought it was just going to be a goofy action movie, which it was, but I didn't expect that I'd care so much about Mike and Phoebe. The tree and the car was great, especially as they changed position in the metaphor. I'm probably not going to see it again in the theatre, but I do want to watch Phoebe's reactions to his issues again. Her super forgiveness and anger that didn't land on him makes so much more sense with the info about her we get later on.
posted by humans are superior! at 2:32 AM on August 23, 2015

Thirding that it was unexpectedly good. The credits montage suggest the whole thing should be considered an underground comic in spirit so no, the RL CIA doesn't work that way LOL.
posted by Bringer Tom at 12:29 PM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I liked this movie way LESS than I thought I would! I felt like if it had really committed to being a surrealist black comedy action flick, I would have loved it. If we had seen everything unfold from Mike's perspective instead of having the whole other espionage thriller movie in there, I think it would have been a much stronger movie.

I very much liked the contrast of Mike, the stoner who takes way too many drugs and barely has control of his life, with Asset Howell, who can kill people with a Pot Noodle and a spoon. Every moment when Mike was babbling confusedly about how was this possible was wonderful and hilarious. I would have liked a more organic evolution of how Mike came to realize that his crippling anxieties and PTSD were due to the experiences he had while being trained as a sleeper agent, and how his misery in his "normal life" was as a result of the higher-ups taking away his skills but leaving him with the consequences. The ongoing theme of "am I real?" was one that really resonated with me as someone with a traumatic past and dysfunctional coping mechanisms, and I thought that they were going to a great place with that but then abandoned it halfway through.

The casting was brilliant. Eikenberg was great, Stewart was amazing, and John Leguziamo was frickin perfect. I just would have liked a whole lot less time spent on the CIA characters -- I would have liked to see that whole situation only through Mike's eyes.
posted by KathrynT at 12:30 PM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tonally, it was doing an interesting dance and it would have pulled it off without Topher Grace. However, the one scene where he completely dresses down Connie Britton worked really, really well for me in the fact that I knew I'd be cheering for his death (until it happened and then it was so cold and quick that it brought the humanity back to it). It was the C story of the picture, but I really appreciated that we haven't seen that kind of dynamic in any sort of government conspiracy picture before -- the demoted person hanging around when the project doesn't go right, having people who were once juniors over them. Lots of interesting tension there.

I enjoyed it more than my husband or my teenage daughter (who loves Kristen Stewart but not TWILIGHT) did because it was dancing so hard to keep the comedy, the drama, the sincerity, and the satire plates all spinning.

I thought it was interesting that there was other stuff obviously left on the cutting room floor or just content to be hinted at -- that he clearly spent time in a lab with monkeys or apes, that the monkey story he was writing was mirroring the CIA politics he remembered. The ending felt so traditional, so expected that it let me down. He got a haircut, a job and stopped smoking weed? How much cooler would it have been if he kept doing hits of both the government and the bong variety? (I don't smoke weed. Perhaps it is every stoners dream to actually be an experiment and not have to smoke weed anymore, but I suspect it's more like, "Wouldn't it be cool to be the high James Bond?)

It wasn't a profound movie or the most artful I've seen this year, but it hit that weird KICKASS tone of super violent/purposeful comedy/action in a way I enjoyed.

Also just happy to see Leguziamo get work worthy of him.
posted by Gucky at 5:56 PM on August 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Actually I didn't get the sense that he stopped smoking weed, just a that he had learned to use it as a positive tool which sometimes you have to put aside for other tools. Certainly the credit animation suggests that he has a very lively internal extra-real vision of himself and what he does.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:34 PM on August 23, 2015

True story -- I saw this movie with my father because we're seeinga lot of movies together, because seeing me and the movie dates seem to be helping him work past the loss of my mother who died two years ago. This was a particularly unpromising week, and in his email describing the possibilities he quoted the blurb for this movie, followed by the memorable line: "I don't know what a stoner is." I had to explain it to him.
posted by Bringer Tom at 6:45 PM on August 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I want to see this, but unless recriminalization becomes a trend I think I'm done with stoner movies (cannabis fucks with my anti-anxiety meds, so I haven't partaken for twelve years and expect to never do so again).
posted by infinitewindow at 11:31 AM on August 24, 2015

" Okay, we'll take my car..."
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:45 PM on September 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm another for "this was unexpectedly fun!" Sure, it was utter pish, but how much fun was it watching that cast elevate the material? Eisenberg and Stewart were so wonderful together (her face when Topher Grace - who makes such a perfectly snide SOB - said "Your stoner boyfriend made you come like crazy behind the Taco Bell" and she was all, yep, yep he did), and then Walter Goggins walks in with a shotgun. That's all I need. Oh, but we get Leguziamo in a shell suit? Hearts in my eyes! So, it's a 6.5/10 movie with moments of transcendent wonderfulness.

Oddly enough, I watched The Parallax View last night. Bit of a weird coincidence ...or is it? *adjusts tinfoil hat*
posted by Gin and Broadband at 3:06 PM on September 28, 2015

The movie was absolutely & cleverly designed to be watched while stoned (WWS), and many scenes were made deliberately confusing & multifaceted, to fuck up & delight the hazy brain.
I had a hard time throughout understanding what is going on with this movie until the end credits montage made it clear that this was a live comic novel.
However, I tried to find a clip of the end credit and could not - anybody can help?
I felt strongly afterward that this was an introduction for a Jason Bourne-like franchise, and that we'll be seeing many sequels to this in the years to come.
I wish though that his name was not "Mike" - he did not look like a Mike.
posted by growabrain at 2:09 PM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I give it 3 Funyuns.
posted by growabrain at 2:15 PM on November 12, 2015

I saw this when it was out in theaters, and just rewatched it because I have a fondness for Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass [TVTropes] stories, and found out that this was about to drop off of Amazon Prime, so I gave it another look. (This was before I realized that Max Landis wrote it; he's since had his own #MeToo moment.) It mostly still works, almost entirely on Jesse Eisenberg and Kirsten Stewart's charm; Mike seems genuinely revolted by his ability to instinctively find a lethal solution to nearly every problem.

The backstory makes absolutely no sense, though: the guy was the best product of what seems to be yet another riff off of MKUltra... but somehow it was also bad for him... so Lasseter discontinues the program, virtually imprisons him in this small town via conditioning, and assigns him a live-in handler who falls in love with him... and then another CIA guy, who supposedly got Lasseter's job because of his political adeptness, throws it all away with this overblown termination operation because [mumble mumble]. And, at the end, Mike is doing the sort of thing that Lasseter went to great lengths to keep him from doing, and... that's a good thing? None of it makes sense, and aside from having a great cast (Topher Grace in particular is convincing as someone who just might throw away his career because he can't keep from being an extreme dick), the movie doesn't have an awful lot going for it. Still not too bad for at least one rewatch.
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:20 AM on May 5, 2021

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