In the mid-twentieth century, the MK Ultra project was started in the United States. It was a sinister project of disturbing and very often illegal mind control techniques over, almost exclusively, unwilling victims – a process the CIA dubiously described as crucial for confidential security purposes. It was a scenario that, to some extent, had its roots in historic Nazi experimentation techniques. It has since been brought into the public realm, but one senses that there is an awful lot left to be uncovered and a strong suggestion too that such techniques almost certainly exist to this day.
Just the kind of light-hearted fun and games on which to base a goofball, tongue-in-cheek comedy!
In fairness, generally speaking, American Ultra doesn’t take itself too seriously or have any particular pretentions to be a historical record of dark doings and deeds by the special security services of the USA.
American Ultra is essentially a dark comedy; a sort of comic book caper about ‘stoner’ Mike Howell (played by Jesse Eisenberg) whose existence revolves around a dead end job, fanciful comic book scribblings and getting high, all of which he shares with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), with whom he has a sweet, yet rather shambolic relationship.
Things are set to get interesting though when power crazed, yet cowardly CIA operative Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) orders Mike’s assassination. Seems a little harsh? Maybe, but Mike is not what he seems (or indeed what he realises), for he is in fact a once CIA ‘Ultra’ asset that has, for one reason or another, now outstayed his welcome in Yates’ eyes.
So begins an unlikely sequence of events as Yates and his assortment of Ultra ‘goons’ attempt to terminate Mike’s existence through any means necessary. Mike has an allie though in the shape of Victoria Lasseter, also a member of the CIA (played by Connie Britton), who is determined not to let Yates conclude his murderous masterplan.
At times it’s dark and macabre – think Natural Born Killers meets Tarantino – then reverting to farce, going all ‘keystone cops’ on us, but there are also fleeting tips of the hat to the serious nature of ‘Ultra’ experimentation and its affects on its victims.
It’s debatable whether such a scatter gun approach to the direction of the subject matter ultimately works, but director Nima Nourizadeh should be commended for not steering this erratic, yet very watchable film too far down any cliched cul-de-sacs, instead keeping it a little surreal and all rather cartoonish.
There are genuine laugh out loud moments, including a massively out of place, yet genuinely tremendous proposal scene.
It’s fairly predictable fair, that much is true, but there’s certainly enough about American Ultra to make it stand out from the crowd within its genre.