Lets see; Jesse Eisenberg plays an action hero and Kristen Stewart plays someone with more than one expression. That’s enough internet stereotypes being bucked to reboot half teh interwebs, even if nothing else happens. Jesse Eisenberg is a terrible action hero, which is kind of the point of casting him, I think, and this is the first time I’ve seen Kristen Stewart playing an adult role, so I don’t know if she’s levelled up for this movie or has always been perfectly fine and was just getting a lot of grief from people who hate Twilight and needed a face to focus on.
Coming hard on the heels of Hitman: Agent 47 American Ultra could only look good. I’d liked the look of the trailer; it looked like a movie where the super-agent was someone you could actually root for. And so it came to pass. Jesse Eisenberg with long stringy hair is a lot less creepy than Jesse with a haircut (he gets a haircut, so you don’t need to take my word for it or check his earlier movies). He’s marginally less believable as a super spy with his hair short, but that’s less about him, and more about the way we’ve been housetrained to think that superspies will have chins and muscles. With the hair long, he’s completely convincing as a dead end stoner, and he sells the idea of being a stoner who has completely forgotten being the kind of person who kill someone with a spoon. Or with pretty much anything else.
Which brings me to the killing. There’s a lot of it, and it’s not quite played for laughs, and it actually works. On the one hand, by the time anyone gets hurt, you’ve got to know the characters a bit and it means something real when bad things happen around them. On the other hand, the staging is crisp and clever. The action is fast and genuinely surprising, and things which ought to hurt have consequences which feel credible. It’s still people being horribly killed for our entertainment, but it’s given both weight and novelty rather than the empty flourishes you get in most of the movies.
For a pretty good worked example, you could put the big fight at the end of the movie up against the big fight at the end of The Equalizer. Both feature highly trained retired superspies killing hordes of armed goons using the contents of a supermarket, but where The Equalizer showed us weary sadism, American Ultra is running on sheer desperation. Mike is there to save his girl and painfully aware that he’s outnumbered and outgunned. It makes all the difference to how the killing plays out.
Also in the movie, and criminally underused, the ever dependable Walton Goggins, who spends most of his screen time playing the kind of interchangeable psycho anyone could play before getting two perfectly judged minutes right at the end, which is really too late. They don’t save the performance so much as make you wonder why the rest of it was ever allowed to happen. Still, since he disappears between one scene and the next, it’s possible that his character makes it out of the whole movie, and he’ll get a chance to show us what he can really do in the sequel which we are totally not going to get.