American Ultra delivers great acting, comedy chops

Gavin Gaddis

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If movies like Get Hard are the disease that is killing comedy, movies like American Ultra are the cure. Hollywood newcomer Nima Nourizadeh directs this dynamite script from Max Landis (“Chronicle”) which, on the surface, appears to be a simple re-tooling of the 2007 television show “Chuck.”

While “Chuck” was about a loser who works at Best Buy who has the entire CIA/NSA database downloaded into his brain and must be protected by agents, “American Ultra” protagonist Mike is a stoner who works at a Quickie Mart who has the best CIA training money can buy buried in his subconscious and is attacked by agents. Oh, and his stoner girlfriend is Kristen Stewart

I went in expecting a half-assed action flick peppered with Judd Apatow imitation humor. Luckily “American Ultra” is nowhere near the film I expected.

To fully understand this film without seeing it I must reference a long-dead genre of action movie; a genre I call “concession plots.” In the olden days of film we had a lot of family and action movies that used a simple formula: something wild and/or fantastical happens to the protagonist, the rest of the movie is essentially just following them and seeing what happens.

“Starman,” “E.T.”, “Die Hard,” the original “Star Wars,” All focus on one person who has one hell of a weird day and their life is turned upside down as a result. Nowadays we have to have a prophecy, a Jennifer Lawrence, a book adaptation, something has to carry the plot of the movie. Concession plots require only one thing from you as an audience member; you must be able to accept the one main concession of the film.

The concession of “American Ultra” is that a stoner has the abilities of an elite CIA field agent buried in his head underneath his intelligent-yet-dopey exterior. The rest of the movie is simply an adventure watching this couple go through a plot larger than themselves.

The action of “Ultra” is top notch, finding a nice middle ground between gunplay and gore without pushing too far. That being said, the true shining force in this film is the acting. I genuinely cannot think of a better performance from either Jesse Eisenberg or Kristen Stewart in recent memory. I saw their characters up on screen, not actors reciting lines. You genuinely believe the goofy nature of their relationship, they genuinely care for each other despite their glaring flaws and dead-end jobs. Here’s hoping Landis influences the writers of tomorrow and brings us out of the depressingly predictable Apatow era of comedy and into an age where films like American Ultra aren’t the exception.