But this script is derailed when Mike starts to be able to do incredible, mind-blowing things. He can kill a person with a spoon and other common household goods; he can inventory 50 types of tank; and he can remember just about everything. As he tells Phoebe after these discoveries, “I think I might be a robot.”
“You’re not a robot,” she replies. And she’s right – he’s actually a sleeper agent for the CIA who’s just been “activated,” only to find out that the rest of the CIA, helmed by higher-up Yates (Topher Grace, ironically of the marijuana-centric “That ’70s Show”), is out to get him. In the subsequent goose chase around the town of Liman, W.Va., Mike reveals himself to be something else, too: a hero.
Making a stoner the protagonist of a movie is not a new concept; “American Ultra” is just the latest in a series of films to do so. Consider 1998’s “The Big Lebowski,” in which Jeff Bridges plays “The Dude” as just another guy who enjoys smoking pot and wants to get his rug fixed. Or 2004’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” which follows two stoners as they surmount countless obstacles in their quest to reach the fast-food restaurant. Sure, these movies don’t exactly take the stoner seriously, but as comedies, they’re also not meant to.
2008’s “Pineapple Express” was the first to flip the script. It features Seth Rogen as Dale, a court process server with a taste for Mary Jane, and Saul, his sensitive drug dealer played by James Franco. After Dale witnesses a murder, they go on the run from the real drug dealers and it’s clear that no matter how much pot they’ve smoked, these two are the civilians. They’re also the only guys going up against drug kingpins and a corrupt police force.
As “Pineapple Express’s” plot devolves into violent farce, Dale and Saul are who the audience roots for, even when their idiocy stands in their own way. The message about drugs seems to be that it depends on who is smoking them. As Dale tells Saul, “The same rules don’t apply to Red, he’s a drug dealer.” Saul’s reply is, “I’m a drug dealer. Are you saying you don’t trust me?” This question is the undercurrent of the rest of the movie, as it carefully shifts how we consider potheads.
With “American Ultra,” director Nima Nourizadeh seems to be trying out a similar switch. Mike’s stonerdom is not his best or his worst quality, but rather just one of his characteristics. The real criminal is Yates, the CIA agent who capriciously decides that Mike is an asset no longer worth having. When he refers to Mike as Phoebe’s “pathetic, stoner boyfriend,” his insanity makes the audience question their own derision.
Could it be that we’re tired of seeing the stoner – and his weed – as illegal? Statistics say yes. Sixty-nine percent of people surveyed by Pew believe alcohol to be worse for people’s health than marijuana. Washington, Oregon, Alaska, Colorado and D.C. have all passed measures to legalize it, and 14 other states are in the process of decriminalizing it. Twenty-three states (and D.C.) have legalized medical marijuana use.
Out of a survey of Americans, just over half – 53 percent – were in favor of legalizing the drug. Among millennials, that number rises to 68. This in contrast to 1969, when a mere 12 percent thought pot should be legal. Now we think even Shakespeare likely smoked pot. In the midst of these cultural changes, it makes sense that our perceptions of pot smokers in the media are changing for the better.
There’s been a stark difference in judgment even since 2009, the last time that Eisenberg and Stewart starred in a movie together. In “Adventureland,” Eisenberg plays James, a young stoner with a crush on Stewart’s character. But the setting is 1987, not 2015, and while weed is a popular party favor, these stoners aren’t the guys that get the girls. Instead they’re nerdy – James and his friend Joel (Martin Starr) both major in types of literature – and unlikely to win punching contests. As Joel explains his prospects: “Cabbie. Hot dog vendor. Marijuana delivery guy. The world is my oyster.”
In “American Ultra,” Eisenberg’s character has leveled up. His opponents aren’t just the neighborhood guys anymore; they’re heavily militarized forces and yuppies like Yates who want to see him dead. But it’s not an equal show of force that makes Mike the hero, and it’s not the weed. It’s what he chooses to do with the skills at his disposal, trying to save his girlfriend from the drones.
In the coming years, it’s likely that we’ll see more unbiased portrayals of stoners like Mike, characters whose decision to be a pothead can be an asset as well as a choice. We may be tasked with identifying with the stoner even if we don’t agree with them.
“American Ultra” takes itself seriously even — and especially — when its characters just want to get high. It seems only fair that we start taking the stoner seriously, too.