American Ultra (2015)
The ultimate secret agent becomes the ultimate target
My original inclination was to expect a movie similar to Natural Born Killers when I thought of this movie, which only served to confuse me with the cast choices. Of course, then I watched it and realized that it's nothing like that at all. Heck, outside of a few effects on the title/credits cards, there's isn't really any crazy drug-o-vision stuff going on. If anything, this movie ended up being more akin an action-based spy flick à la True Lies with a stoner cast instead of Arnold. Sound good? My thoughts, right ahead.
We start our flick with our hero in custody looking pretty beat up, presented with the question of "where do we start?" We then get some super-rapid cut action doings some rewinding of the movie to get back to the start of our story, just three days prior. Seems our hero is getting ready to propose to his girlfriend, and wanting it to be perfect sets them up on a trip to Hawaii - only problem being he seems to suffer some severe anxiety about leaving his little town. They end up cancelling, getting pulled over by a cop for no other point than to just harass the hero (it seems), and then some burnt dinner. It was a pretty terrible, no good day. His week is just going to get worse.
Over at a government building, a woman gets a mysterious hotline call about the activation of a program intended to destroy one of her assets. After confronting her coworker who is authorizing such an op to unwanted results, she heads to the asset to activate him and prepare him for the problems about to rise up for him. It seems to fail quite badly though, and our hero has no idea what she's talking about. After she leaves, he goes outside to figure out what two men are doing to his car, and when they pull a knife and guns he ends up deftly dealing with both men. Freaked out over this turn of events, he calls up his girlfriend, and as the two are trying to make sense of things a cop rolls up and they end up with a trip to the local jail.
More assets are activated to deal with the hero, being set loose on him at the police station. Once again, the hero shows a predisposition towards being capable of things he shouldn't be capable of, albeit this time with some slight comical results as it seems his "autopilot" turns off and his stoner self comes shining through. Once again on the run from something they don't understand and with the police station in burning ruins, they return to the grocery store to decide what to do next. After what the men were doing is shown through his car exploding, the two get in the girlfriends car and head off to his buddy in hopes of being safe while they try and figure out what the heck is going on.
The plot isn't entirely something that's never been seen before, but it's executed well. Again, starting the movie off with the present and then flashing back kills any real suspense over the hero surviving (since otherwise he wouldn't be flashing back in the first place) and we all know at this point that that sort of thing always leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth. To make up for it, the plot trickles a few reveals through-out to keep it from being completely straight forward, and it does an alright job of keeping you guessing on every character but the hero.
Acting is well done. I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of Kristen Stewart's acting in most movies as she delivers the same set-in-stone facial expressions and performance in most the things I've caught her in, but she managed to impress here, gently saying "hey, I can too act." As one would anticipate in a movie where the hero is a stoner, a lot of the other characters are rather over-the-top as well, but it doesn't impact the movie in a negative way. If anything, it almost helps, allowing a few jokes here and there without making you feel it's out of character. Sure, the main villain is a little lame, but it's not so much to do with acting as it is just how the character is written.
Effects work is pretty brutal when it wants to be, and yet also manages to tread the line of being funny when it wants it to. A good run of both bullet-holes and stabs, explosions and audio to back up bone-crunching action scenes. With how it's cut, most these action scenes are also rather easy to follow despite how quick they can be. Something that some movies could learn, in fact, is found in the fact that the movie even "saves the best for last," giving a wonderfully paced and performed finale in a supermarket with plenty of nods to things you'd never really expect to be even slightly considered foreshadowing earlier on.
I had an absolute ball with this movie. One of the joys of going into something that you haven't heard about and hasn't been subjected to high levels of hyping is that you can get surprised by gems. The only things I even knew of this movie was that it had a stoner in it, it was violent, and Stewart supposedly had more than one facial expression. On those accounts, it excelled quite well, and although with the violence and language the movie wouldn't be for everyone, if you absolutely had to try and prove that maybe the problem isn't that Stewart can't act, but she just can't find a movie that's not written poorly this would be the thing to try and prove it with. Beyond that, it's got some effective laughs, and plenty of action to keep a good number of people happy I'd think.