Nima Nourizadeh's American Ultra is a bloody valentine attached to a bomb. It's violent, brash, inventive, and horrific, and perhaps the most romantic film of the year. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as Mike and Phoebe, two West Virginia stoners blissed out on weed and each other. "We're the perfect fucked-up couple," Mike beams, before admitting that she's perfect and he's the fuck-up. And as the movie starts, Mike's scraped up the cash for a chintzy engagement ring so he can spend the rest of his life kinda ruining hers: having panic attacks that prevent them from traveling, forcing her to cook lest he burn down the house, and supporting them on his meager paycheck from the mini-mart.
With other actors, this could play like slapstick. But Eisenberg mines Mike for pathos -- he's not a punchline, he's a flake who knows he's his own worst enemy. Yet it's Stewart who makes this loony love story work. She takes what could easily be a simple supportive-girlfriend role -- a cheerleader enabler -- and fills Phoebe with a rainbow of emotions.
The big twist is none of us know exactly who Mike is -- not even Mike. One night outside the Cash & Carry, Mike looks up at the stars, and this disheveled domestic drama turns into a thriller, with the CIA out to murder Mike. It's no shock to moviegoers that Mike has been programmed with surprise skills, though it is to him. We've seen that plot point in a dozen dumb movies. What's shocking is how smart American Ultra is at being dumb -- its emotional intelligence is off the charts.