We’re living through an action movie renaissance.
I’m not talking about big, tentpole blockbuster films such as the Transformers franchise. No, I’m talking about smaller, not-quite-independent action romps such as John Wick and American Ultra.
The blockbusters all have nonsensical plots that bloat close to three hours in length and drown audiences in computer generated effects. Transformers: Age of Extinction didn’t need to be two hours and 45 minutes long. No one wanted eight hours of The Hobbit.
But these other, smaller action films are leaner, meaner and better. They have straightforward stories — John Wick avenges his dog, Mike Howell of American Ultra doesn’t want to die — and run closer to 90 minutes. Hell, even the excellent Mad Max: Fury Road and Kingsman: The Secret Service hemmed close to the two-hour mark.
American Ultra is another entry in what’s becoming a decade of excellent action in American film.
Mike Howell — played by Jesse Eisenberg — just wants to get high and hang out with his girlfriend. The twenty-something burnout lives in small-town West Virginia, tends to the local convenience store and doodles comics about the cosmic adventures of a monkey astronaut.
He wants to propose to his girlfriend Phoebe — played by Kristen Stewart — but can’t find the right moment. They had booked a trip to Hawaii, but Mike has a panic attack whenever he tries to leave town. They didn’t make the plane.
So Mike’s in trouble with his girl, but he wants to make things right, and the film seems set up to be an indie-style romantic comedy put together by Zach Braff. But while Howell is working, a mysterious woman in dark sunglasses walks in and says a long string of gibberish code words Mike doesn’t understand.
Then two guys in black show up and start messing with his car. When Mike protests, the men attack and Mike destroys them. He tosses a cup of hot Ramen in the face of one, uses a spoon to ruin the other’s trachea, steals their gun and shoots them in the face.
Mike’s covered in blood and freaked out. The entire sequence was automatic, as if he had no control. He’s not just another ordinary stoner washed up in a small town outside of Washington D.C.
No, Mike is a failed CIA mind control experiment.
Years ago, the agency tried to turn Mike into a super soldier but it didn’t take. So they wiped his memory, dropped him in a crappy town and programmed him to panic when he tried to leave. Now the CIA is cleaning house. They’re coming for Mike but he’s too awesome to die and too stoned to care.
That’s American Ultra — a simple setup that plays out over 90 brutal minutes of witty dialogue and fantastic action. It’s The Long Kiss Goodnight by way of Pineapple Express.
If the idea of the CIA using drugs and hypnosis to reprogram a person’s brain to turn them into the perfect killing machine sounds far-fetched … then you probably haven’t heard of Project MK Ultra.
MK Ultra — presumably where screenwriter Max Landis got the name for the film — was a covert CIA operation that ran from the early 1950s until 1973. The main thrust of the project was mind control and the agency tried a little bit of everything to achieve that goal.
Most famously, the CIA dosed college students, prisoners and mental patients with LSD. But it also experimented with torture, sleep deprivation, hypnosis and electronics … all in an attempt to mold and shape the human brain.
The CIA set up brothels in San Francisco and put one-way glass mirrors in the rooms of the prostitutes. When a john wandered into the house of ill-repute, the pro would dose him LSD, all so the agents behind the glass could see what happened when a guy took acid without knowing it.
Donald Ewen Cameron, a Scottish-born physician, took things a step further. As part of the project, Cameron ran experiments at McGill University in Montreal where he attempted to cure schizophrenia by erasing the memories of unwitting and unwilling victims.
Many of the subjects were normal people who had come for free health care for depression or anxiety. When Cameron got ahold of them, he would use drugs to induce long comas and electroshock their brains.
Some historians — and several conspiracy theorists — have claimed that the true mission of MK Ultra was to create a super soldier or a Manchurian candidate capable of long, grueling missions and high level assassinations.
Based on the evidence in front of us, we don’t know if that was ever an actual aim of Project MK Ultra. In 1973, then CIA director Richard Helms ordered the records of the agency’s grotesque human experiments destroyed.
American Ultra supposes that the CIA never stopped trying to perfect the use of drugs and hypnosis in the creation of super soldiers. Howell is the product of Project Wiseman, a recent effort that offered third strike misdemeanor drug offenders — who often face life in prison — with the opportunity to serve their country and skip the jail time.
Cops busted Howell for acid when he was 18. The CIA came calling and he took the opportunity.
Everything about American Ultra just works. The action is intense, brutal and well choreographed. The plot shines, the characters all take actions that make sense, and the twists are fun and add to the tension of the film.
At first, it’s hard to believe Jesse Eisenberg as an action hero, but his perpetually stoned and dead-eyed Howell is fantastic. The film’s climax in a small-town grocery store proves the skinny and unimposing Eisenberg has the action movie chops. The look on his face during a crucial moment with one of the villains cements him as an action icon.
Howell is great because he’s a millennial everyman. We all know a guy like Howell, who just wants to work his small shitty job, get high and spend time with his girl. Because of that, Eisenberg is a perfect fit.
In 1988, few believed Bruce Willis could be an action star. At the time, he was mostly known for the TV show Moonlighting and his crappy blues albums. But then he played John McClane in Die Hard, the greatest everyman action hero in the greatest action film of all time. This is Eisenberg’s Bruce Willis moment.
The direction is great and the cast is fantastic, but it’s the script that truly elevates American Ultra. Max Landis — who also penned the excellent superhero film Chronicle — wrote the movie. His dialogue and characterization takes what could be a one-note, by-the-book action film and turns it into something special.
Topher Grace is the villain, a CIA desk jockey running the current iteration of MK Ultra. He’s got great lines, but he’s best when verbally sparring with Connie Britton’s Victoria Lassetter. More than just dull interagency squabbles, Landis writes the two as if they’re children fighting in the back seat of a car on a family vacation. It’s magic.
Even minor characters get moments to shine. Walton Goggins plays a CIA agent codenamed Laugher. He’s a former mental patient turned trained killer by Grace’s late-stage Ultra programs. Landis wrote Laugher just over two minutes of dialogue total, and neither he nor Goggins waste one moment of that precious screentime.
Tony Hale plays a low-level CIA goon named Peter Douglas. He exists mostly for the other agents to shit on and push around. But Douglas has moments — and like Laugher they only take up a minute or two — that make him more believable. “Petey” could have been a shitty plot device, but a few small scenes and a few lines of dialogue make him far more.
American Ultra has everything audiences want from a summer action flick — explosions, horrifying violence and clever dialogue delivered by a snarky leading man. It’s rare that audiences will see an action film that’s so well written and acted.
But it’s becoming more common, and that’s the benefit of living through an action movie renaissance.