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Film / American Ultra

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Mike: Babe, I just killed two people!
Phoebe: Did you call the cops?!
Mike: No, I did not call the police, since I'm the murderer, and because I have, like, a lot of weed and mushrooms in my car...

American Ultra is a 2015 comedy/action film starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, about a pot-smoking convenience store clerk who finds his world change in an instant with the discovery of dormant abilities.

Mike Howell is an average, everyday person who works a boring job at a convenience store, likes getting high with his girlfriend Phoebe, and enjoys a completely unexciting life... except Mike is also secretly a highly-trained, highly dangerous special operative. He just doesn't remember any of this. When a pair of goons try to quietly retire him, his buried programming comes surging back with a vengeance, causing the man in charge of the operation to pull out all the stops to put him down for good. Even if it means leveling an entire small town to do it.

The film was written by Max Landis and also stars Topher Grace, John Leguizamo and Walton Goggins, among others.

This Film provides examples of:

  • The Ace: According to Lasseter, Mike is actually the best result the ULTRA program ever achieved. While every other subject inevitably failed (in some fashion), he succeeded.
  • Action Girl:
    • Lasseter, who kickstarts the plot by revealing Mike's training to him before he can be assassinated by the TOUGHGUY operatives, and later rescues him from the crashed car before Laugher blows it up. She ends up subduing Yates during the final action sequence.
    • Phoebe also shows that she's a crack shot with a gun and shows some unarmed combat skills. This foreshadows that she's also CIA.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Subverted: Phoebe attempts to escape a basement in which she is locked this way, but she ends up falling through the ceiling after crawling just a few feet.
  • And the Adventure Continues: The final scene has Mike (now an official CIA operative) working with Phoebe to infiltrate and take down a Chinese mob syndicate, the resolution of which plays over the closing credits.
  • Anyone Can Die: By the end of the film, 8 of the named characters we've been introduced to have been killed.
  • Artistic License – Law Enforcement: After walking out of the supermarket where they just finished taking out a bunch of assassins, leaving the place on fire, Mike and Phoebe walk out of the building and are faced by the SWAT team and other armed troopers. Mike takes this opportunity to propose to Phoebe. She says yes but then the two are tased by a SWAT trooper for delaying them from entering the building, even though the violence was over and they could have easily just walked past Mike and Phoebe without tasing them first. While law enforcement officers are permitted to use force to enter a building if there's a violent crime taking place and people are actively getting in the officers' way, the assassins had already been taken care of and Mike and Phoebe were not actively trying to stop them from entering.
  • Artistic License – Explosives: The grenade Crane throws at Mike beeps as it cooks toward detonation. Grenades don't have audible timers; this is purely for effect.
  • Ax-Crazy: The one major flaw of both the WISEMAN and TOUGHGUY sub-programs of ULTRA, is that they inevitably led to psychological instability, if not outright madness. One tried to shy away from this outcome, the other found subjects that were already profiled for it.
  • Badass Normal: Otis is no programmed killing machine but he is a soldier who knows about suppressing fire.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted.
  • Becoming the Mask: Phoebe was Mike's handler and was originally just his girlfriend as a cover story, and was meant to return to the CIA after she got him settled in his new life. However, she fell in love with him for real and decided to stay.
  • Big Bad: Yates.
  • Big Damn Kiss: After the climactic confrontation, and in front of a couple dozen law enforcement officials, Mike gets down on his knees and proposes to Phoebe. She accepts, he stands up, and they move towards each other to kiss. Then they both get tased.
  • Big Good: Krueger, in a way. Yates authorizes the hunt on Mike without his authorization, and he tips Lasseter off about it anonymously. He appears near the end of the film to clean up loose ends. However, he spares Lasseter and allows her to use Mike as an operative.
  • The Cameo/Dead Star Walking: John Leguizamo appears for a grand total of two scenes as Rose(Mike's pot dealer), who shows up once to bring Mike some fireworks for his proposal to Phoebe, and the second when they hide out at his house. He and his associates end up being anticlimactically massacred when TOUGHGUY operatives assault the house.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: Lasseter invokes this to save herself from being executed like Yates by Krueger. She points out that the TOUGHGUY operatives were the most lethal human beings the CIA has ever been able to train, yet Mike, outnumbered and outgunned, was able to kill seventeen of them - most of them in a single battle. Thus, Mike is now the best combat operative in existence, and answers to her. It spares her.
  • Catch and Return: Mike does this with a grenade thrown by Crane.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The proposal fireworks.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The anonymous informant who tells Lasseter that the ULTRA program is being shutdown ends up being Krueger, who has to step in at the end to clean up loose ends himself.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Mike's entire fighting style, given that he seldom has a gun. In the Max Goods store, he kills an entire team of TOUGHGUY assets using whatever he can find on the shelves: a packet of frozen vegetables, a dustpan, a row of demonstration lightbulbs, a meat cleaver and a hammer.
  • Cop Killer: The TOUGHGUY assassins Crane and Laugher murder five cops so as to get Mike, who's then in police custody inside their station. Upon surveying the carnage after, Lasseter lampshades how stupid this is, since it draws them extreme attention as it's probably the least subtle means possible for this.
  • Creative Closing Credits: Mike's Apollo Ape comics come to life with music and color.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: Much to Mike's own surprise, he can mix it up with the best of them. It's largely involuntary at first.
  • Dark Action Girl: Crane, who goes with Laugher to assassinate Mike on Yates's orders. She dies, Laugher doesn't.
  • Damsel in Distress: Played with. At one point in the film, Phoebe is captured by Yates and his crew, and spends most of the last third of the film handcuffed, slapped and hit against a wall and carted around while Yates tries to escape from Mike. However, she also reveals that she has weapons training in the scene where they escape from Rose's house, and saves Mike's life by giving him the antidote for the gas, and eventually uses a paperclip to pick her handcuffs.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Yates' attempt to kill Mike is cited as being because Mike's attempts to leave his assigned place are a security risk. This would be a case of Villain Has a Point, except for a few things: 1) Mike didn't know that he wasn't supposed to leave when he tried to make those trips. In fact, he didn't even know that he was a CIA asset, 2) the WISEMAN program was scrapped and only the CIA knew how to reactivate Mike, so his leaving town probably didn't constitute as much of a risk as Yates claimed, and 3) Mike is psychologically programmed against leaving. Every time he tries, he'll have a panic attack and back out.
  • The Dragon: Laugher probably counts, being the TOUGHGUY agent we see doing most of Yates' dirty work. He's also apparently the most capable of the ones we see, and gives Mike more trouble than any of the others.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The film ends with Mike and Phoebe braving all manner of obstacles (including each of them being injured by Yates and his group), and the former proposing to the latter before Lasseter recruits him back to the CIA. The film ends with them traveling the world together just like they wanted... while also still using the trip to do takedown missions for the CIA.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: When Mike and Phoebe have what may well be their last conversation via telephone, Yates hangs up the phone and says it was "lame." Even Laugher looks abashed at that point.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Most of the action happens over a single night, and even the Framing Device of Mike's interview happens less than three days after the chronological start.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • "I can't remember my life before I met Phoebe..."
    • The fact that Phoebe is a crackshot with a gun, despite never hinting that they were trained in weapons, serves to be a tipoff for the audience shortly before it's revealed that she has CIA training. Plus, it's shown that right after Mike takes out the first two assassins after him that she works at a Bounty Hunter's office.
    • Phoebe insists she's not mad that Mike's panic attack forces them to cancel their vacation, despite cursing him out at the airport. Of course she's not mad at him. She knows that Mike's panic attacks are the result of psychological conditioning.
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: In her first scene, Lasseter is looking over a document that is so heavily redacted that only four words are visible on the first page. It's only shown briefly, so it's easy to miss that the third and fourth words on the page (which are not consecutive) are "Harry" and "Potter".
  • Government Conspiracy: The CIA and the military shut down Liman, West Virginia under the ruse of a CDC quarantine for a new virus they blame on Mike and Lasseter as supposedly animal rights activists that got this from test monkeys (implying that she even had sex with one).
  • The Handler: Mike's girlfriend, Phoebe, is actually this for him. He's understandably deeply upset by this revelation.
  • How We Got Here: The movie starts with Mike in custody, legs and hands cuffed to a table, his face bloodied and beaten up, and an agent walks in with a bevy of photos of various pieces of evidence, some obviously implements of violence. The story then backtracks to how we arrived at this point.
  • Ice-Cream Koan: Mike's pot-induced parable of the Tree and the Car.
  • Impaled Palm: Mike gets stabbed through the hand with a screwdriver during the final fight with Laugher.
  • The Immodest Orgasm: Of Phoebe, seen during Mike's flashbacks to his life with her after the gas attack scene.
  • Improbable Age: Unless Phoebe is considerably older than she looks she was already a trained and trusted CIA agent at all of twenty years old (according to dialogue from Yates she dropped out in 2010, five years before the film is set.) This might apply to Mike too, but he has the excuse that the programme he was involved in was experimental.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: At one part, Mike performs "the ol' frying pan bullet trick," reflecting a shot from a seated position on the floor, onto a pan he tossed into the air, and into someone positioned behind him. Basically using a moving object to ricochet his bullet 90ΒΊ into a target he can't see. Even Mike seems baffled that it worked.
  • Improbable Weapon User: Whatever is handy, Mike will use it to end you if threatened. Including the utensil he was eating with.
    Otis: He killed two operatives with a spoon, sir.
    Yates: A fucking- SPOON!?
  • Improvised Weapon: Over the course of the film, Mike uses a spoon, a frying pan, an axe and various kitchen implements to dispatch members of the TOUGHGUY program. In the last scene, when the Chinese gangster refers to him as "unarmed", he can't help but giggle after a quick glance around reveals a) six-pound restaurant-sized cans of spaghetti sauce and black beans, b) a bunch of pots and pans, and c) a metal dustpan.
  • Jitter Cam: During many of the fight scenes, particularly the ones involving close-quarter combat, the camera frequently trembles and loses focus.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Yates doesn't seem to realize when he's beaten, nor when his (very tenuous) authority for running his own field ops has eroded from underneath him. As Phoebe says, "just give me up, that's all he wants!" His military troops, on the other hand, ditch town as soon as they realize how screwed they are.
  • Laser Sight: When Mike and Phoebe leave the scene of the final battle, they are confronted by dozens of law enforcement personnel and each have multiple laser sights dancing around on the shirts.
  • Malaproper: Mike becomes this after he's shocked to realise just what a capable assassin he is.
    Mike: I think I'm in anaphylactic shock.
    Phoebe: ... That's not what that's called.
  • Manchurian Agent: This is how the ULTRA program is supposed to work, but when Victoria Lasseter first makes contact with Mike at the convenience store... he doesn't register anything she says as naught but gibberish. Lasseter has to repeat the trigger phrase several times. Even then this only kicks in later, when he's attacked.
    Victoria: Chariot Progressive, listen. Mandelbrot set is in motion. Echo choir has been breached. We are fielding the ball.
    Mike: ...Is that a lyric from something?
  • Mauve Shirt:
    • Sheriff Watts, who questions Mike and Phoebe when they drive back from the aborted Hawaiian vacation, dies by Crane's hand after stalling her to allow both of them to escape the police station.
    • Rose and his crew also get killed off anticlimactically after TOUGHGUY agents raid their house.
  • Meaningful Echo: Mike's analogy about the "tree and car" comes back when Phoebe relates this back to him after being captured by Yates.
  • Moment Killer: Soon after Mike proposes to Phoebe, right as Mike is moving in for a kiss, he gets tazed by the county police who've assembled outside the site of the final fight.
    Phoebe: Come on, could you just give us one— [gets tazed]
  • Motherly Scientist: Downplayed. Victoria shut down the WISEGUY program because it was doing terrible things to its subjects. She heads to Liman in the first place to help Mike simply because she doesn't want to see him die.
  • Never Trust a Trailer: The trailer makes this movie out to be more of a comedy than it actually is. It has some funny scenes, but leaves humor behind for long stretches.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: The town of Liman, West Virginia doesn't exist. The county it is located in, Nireno County, is also fictitious.
  • Not So Stoic: Yates' reaction after seeing the other CIA personnel pull out of the town when he's failed to kill Mike yet again.
  • Not Worth Killing: In the end, after a very vicious, dragged out fight, and right when he's held at gun-point, Mike decides to let Laugher go. They went through a lot of similar ordeals, but Mike also discovers Laugher has a lot less control over their personal situation. Whether that's a good or bad reason to let them live is debatable, although it's somewhat implied that, without anyone giving them orders, Laugher might not be quite such a psychopath.
  • Oh, Crap!: Crane's reaction after Mike catches the grenade she throws and tosses it back to her.
  • Overt Operative: Yates' handling of his operation is not particularly covert, considering that he's hunting down an asset from an experimental and presumably secret project. The official cover story is that Mike and Victoria are sick with a highly contagious disease, but Yates' last gasp solution to the problem was to order a drone strike that would have wiped out the entire town off the map and certainly have attracted the kind of attention that the CIA wouldn't want. Lampshaded when Victoria points out how bizarre it is that Yates' men set a police station on fire.
  • Reusable Lighter Toss: Laugher tosses gas on a car and a Zippo after it because he wants to "do something bad".
  • Rewatch Bonus: At the beginning we see Mike and Phoebe attempt to take a vacation in Hawaii, but his crippling fear of leaving town prevents them from getting on the plane. She insists she's not angry with him, but he says she should be. Once we understand that he was psychologically conditioned not to leave town, and that she genuinely loves him, we can see what was really happening. The vacation wasn't important to her, and she's truly not angry with him; she's disappointed that he was unable to overcome his conditioning, and sad that he's throwing himself into an impossible task.
  • Scary Teeth: Laugher. Most of his top front teeth were knocked out in his first encounter with Mike. He's still holding onto them, though...
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!:
    • Lasseter helps Mike, despite knowing that what she's doing could qualify as treason.
    • Her assistant, Petey, is initially threatened with treason charges of his own by Yates into going along with him, but ultimately chooses to turn on him, refusing to initiate a drone strike on Yates' orders, with a "Fuck you!" for good measure.
  • Smug Snake: It's really that hard to wipe the smirk off Yates' face. Even when he kneels in the middle of the woods with his hands tied and a guy holding him at gunpoint.
  • Spotting the Thread: When Mike recovers from his near-fatal dose of toxic gas, he asks Phoebe how she knew what the effects of it were (and the antidote was). This leads to the reveal that she was a former CIA handler who fell in love with him and gave up her career to stay by his side. The character's weapon proficiency when they escape the house is also a tipoff to the audience that said character has Hidden Depths.
  • Static Stun Gun: Mike and Phoebe are taken out with taser guns after getting engaged.
  • The Stoner: How Mike starts out, but very quickly subverted. Well, he still likes to get high a lot, he just strays from the more traditional beats.
  • Suddenly Always Knew That: After Lasseter activates Mike's buried training, all sorts of information starts flooding back to the forefront of his brain. Which without a full explanation is a bit... disconcerting.
    Mike: Like, do you know what an M1 Abrams is? It's a type of tank. I could list, like, 50 types of tanks right now. When did I learn about tanks? I didn't. I know nothing about tanks or guns or bombs, but I suddenly know, like, everything about tanks and guns and-
  • Super-Soldier: The ULTRA Program was designed to make ordinary people into sleeper agent One-Man Army badasses. The 'sleeper agent' part might have worked too well.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Petey initially helps Lasseter by giving her a supply drop, but then Yates calls him up and reminds him that, since Lasseter is a rogue operative, continuing to assist her would be treason. Petey is then shanghaied into helping Yates, but hates every second of it. When push comes to shove, he chooses Good and refuses to allow a drone to fire on a house Lasseter and Mike are in, regardless of the consequences. He even stays right where he is so the military can find and catch him easily and he won't rack up any more charges. Luckily, he's seen working with Lasseter on Mike and Phoebe's mission at the end, implying he escaped major punishment.
  • Too Dumb to Live/Stupid Evil:
    • Krueger's justification for executing Yates. You can see Lasseter visibly cringing the way Yates just digs his own grave telling Krueger he should be "thanking" Yates for going off the reservation and getting so many people killed, just to take one unsecured asset off the board.
    • Another one in the Too Dumb to Live category: No one with any common sense would stop running and turn back when the person who'd just been trying to kill them called out "Wait!" Lampshaded by Phoebe.
  • Trigger Phrase: "Chariot progressive listen. Mandelbrot set is in motion. Echo Choir has been breached, we are fielding the ball." Subverted in that Mike responds only with utter bafflement. Double Subverted when, soon after, he effortlessly kills two assassins sent after him.
  • Wham Line: " did you know about the gas?" When Mike realizes that Phoebe is far too competent and knowledgeable to be a random civilian.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Laugher disappears after the final fight with Mike, and he is nowhere to be seen when Phoebe runs back to find him in the store.
  • Verbal Tic: Guess what Laugher is known for doing a lot of?
  • Villain Ball: Played with. TOUGHGUY operatives doing excessively villainous things, such as shooting up a police station with a belt-fed machine gun during a covert mission or attempting to burn Mike alive while he's trapped in a car rather than shooting him, is treated as evidence of the program's flaws.
  • Villain Has a Point: While he isn't an outright villain, Krueger has pretty legitimate reasons for executing the actually heroic Lasseter along with Yates. While Yates did overstep his bounds by putting the hit on Mike, Lasseter exacerbated the situation by activating Mike which prompted Yates to escalate things further. She's only saved by pointing out how she's more useful to the agency alive.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Krueger's other justification for executing Yates. Lasseter escapes a similar fate by invoking Can't Kill You, Still Need You.


Video Example(s):


Engaged and Tased

Just when Mike and Pheobe decide to get engaged, they both are tased.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / StaticStunGun

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