‘American Ultra’: Stoner action comedy with a heart

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For Digital First Media

“American Ultra,” deconstructs a genre that is ordinarily ominous in tone, then interjects both comedic and romantic elements into it.

“The Manchurian Candidate,” by novelist Richard Condon, popularized the premise of a sleeper agent. In that psychological thriller, a platoon of American infantrymen was captured during the Korean War. They are taken to Manchuria, where they are subjected to intense brainwashing by Chinese Communist agents.

One of the soldiers, Major Bennett Marco, is the scion of a prominent American political family. As a result of the brainwashing, Marco and his cohorts become convinced of the specious notion that he heroically saved them from certain death on the battlefield.

Upon his return to the United States, Marco receives a Medal of Honor. He then becomes an intelligence agent for the United States government.

Marco is haunted by a recurrent nightmare. In it, during a brainwashing session, at the behest of Communist agents, his sergeant, Raymond Shaw, had killed two members of the platoon. Did it really happen or is it some false memory, a twisted artifact of wartime trauma?

It turns out that Sergeant Shaw has indeed killed two of his underlings. Moreover, he had been programmed by the Communists to unwittingly become a sleeper agent. When playing solitaire, the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds activates him. He accepts orders, which he subsequently forgets, to assassinate various targets. It is all part of an elaborate scheme by the Communists to supplant the democratically elected government of the United States with a puppet dictator.

The novel was adapted into a classic 1962 film directed by John Frankenheimer with Laurence Harvey as the protagonist. The film was remade in 2004, with Jonathan Demme in the helm and Denzel Washington in the lead.

In this image released by Lionsgate, Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Kristen Stewart appear in a scene from "American Ultra." (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate via AP)

In this image released by Lionsgate, Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Kristen Stewart appear in a scene from “American Ultra.” (Alan Markfield/Lionsgate via AP)

Now comes, “American Ultra,” a reinterpretation of the sleeper premise. Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a hapless stoner with long, unkempt hair. He works the late night shift at a mini-mart in some hick West Virginia town. Mike has a broken down jalopy and is encumbered with a panoply of neuroses.

Yet somehow Mike has an attractive, seemingly well-adjusted girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). Mike wonders how he can got so lucky. Initially, the audience is left to ponder the same thing.

The two have planned a romantic jaunt to Hawaii. However, at the airport, Mike experiences a severe anxiety attack. The two are forced to cancel the trip. Although Phoebe is disappointed, ultimately she forgives Mike. Why exactly is Phoebe so tolerant of the foibles of her pathetic boyfriend?

Unbeknownst to Mike, he had been programmed to be a sleeper agent. However, here the bad guys aren’t nefarious Commies. A program within the C.I.A. is responsible for brainwashing American citizens, providing them with advanced training, and turning them into sleeper agents.

A C.I.A. supervisor, Victoria Lassiter (Connie Britton), concocted the program. After being arrested a third time for drug possession, Mike was recruited by Lassiter. As an alternative to jail time, she offers him the opportunity to be a subject in her newly-minted experiment. Mike turns out to be the top student in the project. However, Lasseter recognizes that the program is psychological damaging Mike. Conscience-stricken, she decides to decommission Mike. This apparently ablates Mike’s memory of having been trained as an agent.

Lasseter is demoted and supplanted by a desk agent, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). Yates decides that although Mike has been deactivated, he might pose a security risk. Driven by ambition, Yates launches an unauthorized scheme to assassinate Mike. He has recruited and trained a phalanx of psychotic mental patients to serve as his kill squad.

Lasseter learns of Yate’s illegal initiative. Will she be able to activate Mike’s long dormant skills? If so, how will he fare against his foes?

Screenwriter, Max Landis (“Chronicle”) and director, Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”), do an excellent job of blending the film’s disparate elements. “American Ultra” starts out as if it will be a schlocky stoner comedy. However, Noirizadeh prevents this by extracting nuanced performances from his cast. Instead of devolving into slapstick, “American Ultra” resonates with a genuine poignancy. We witness the ethical qualms that several C.I.A. operatives experience, when they learn of clandestine governmental operations.

In addition, the film includes some excellent action set pieces, which are cleverly-conceived and well-orchestrated. Mike dispatches a series of armed adversaries with the ingenious use of implements that are usually non-lethal. This includes a spoon, a frying pan, a dustpan, and a can of crushed tomatoes.

The film marks the reunion of Eisenberg and Stewart, who appeared together in “Adventureland,” a coming of age film, which was set in an amusement park. Coincidentally, in that film, Eisenberg also played a character, who was a chronic marijuana smoker.  Eisenberg and Stewart reprise the chemistry that they displayed in that film. Their relationship proves quite touching.

The relationship between Britton’s character and her smug successor, portrayed by Grace, bristles with tension. John Leguizamo as a drug dealer, Tony Hale as Lasseter’s erstwhile underling, Walton Coggins (Shane Vendrell  on “The Shield” and Boyd Crowder on “Justify”) as one of the psychokillers, and Bill Pullman as a shadowy character all provide nice touches in smaller, albeit well-written roles.

“American Ultra” is an engaging amalgam of action, comedy, and plenty of heart.

***1/2 R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content) 96 minutes. Lionsgate Films

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.


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