“American Ultra” is hard R Jason Bourne meets Cheech and Chong. A government conspiracy action comedy (with a romantic angle tossed in) dreamed up by two young stoners hot boxing their basement. “Dude! What if the C.I.A. made us into genetically altered government agents and then decided to kill us?” An intriguing idea that falters in execution— the movie falls victim to a dull, uninspired plot, repetitive action and an uneven tone.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a stoner who’s been living happily with his cool stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) for the past five years. Working his mundane job at a convenience store he writes and draws the adventures of Apollo Ape and plans on proposing to Phoebe. That is until everything gets crazy. Unbeknownst to him Mike is actually a C.I.A. agent and one night he’s “reactivated” by agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) when she receives word that Mike is going to be killed. Fellow C.I.A. agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) launches a full on offensive—practically taking over the small West Virginia town Mike and Phoebe live in. Things get off to a solid start. Director Nima Nourizadeh throws us into this chaos without much explanation (mirroring Mike’s own confusion) but we go along with it because we hope to find out why Mike is now Public Enemy Number One.
Soon enough however, the intrigue runs out and “American Ultra” becomes a drag. The screenplay by Max Landis runs out of ideas and surprises, turning into just another “On-the-run-from-government-agents” picture with hit and miss comedy sprinkled throughout. Yates is a one-dimensional bad guy. The action is repetitive and the scenes themselves lack creativity— they’re poorly shot in dim, disorienting shaky cam. I almost got seasick from watching them. The movie certainly doesn’t shy away from gore (it earns its R rating) but it gets to a point where you ask: who cares? The violence isn’t used inventively anyway and the story around it becomes so dull.
The origin of Mike’s abilities is vaguely established; by the end we still don’t know much about the government program he was a part of and more importantly we don’t know why Mike is such a liability. It doesn’t seem practical to waste the time and resources to kill this guy when things seemed fine to begin with. He lives a very simple unexciting life. He didn’t know he was an agent until Victoria reactivated him with a very specific verbal code that no one would know and he doesn’t become dangerous until he’s initially provoked. Mike doesn’t become a liability until the C.I.A. makes him into one. And the decision to kill him appears to come out of thin air; why is this lowly stoner all of a sudden the C.I.A.’s most wanted? Don’t they have better things to do? We’re never given an answer and frankly we stop caring after a while.
I could be looking into it too much. After all, isn’t “American Ultra” a comedy? Well yes but on some level it also wants to be taken seriously. As far as I can tell the movie isn’t trying to be a satire or parody-- it isn’t trying to comment on the government conspiracy action genre or the stoner comedy. Instead (with the shaky cam cinematography) the film feels planted in reality; it wants you to believe that Mike and Phoebe are a real stoner couple who get wrapped up with the C.I.A. The picture’s violence isn’t Quentin Tarantino “cherry-red-blood-spattered-all-over-the-wall” cartoon violence but brutal and realistic. At the same time “American Ultra” also wants to be zany, which creates tonal confusion. A scene depicting the town’s entire police force being massacred doesn’t exactly gel with John Leguizamo as an over-the-top drug dealer, or the scene in which Mike (hiding behind a kitchen cabinet) throws a frying pan up in the air and shoots a bullet that ricochets off said pan, killing a government crony. The film wants to be gritty and intense like the Bourne films but also goofy and outlandish like a stoner comedy, a combination that doesn’t entirely work. Nourizadeh should have taken a much more cartoonish approach.
On the bright side, Eisenberg and Stewart keep “American Ultra” watchable. Eisenberg’s typical fast-talking, nervous on screen persona is perfectly suited for paranoid mixed-up Mike, though Stewart does the best work. Ever since “Twilight,” Stewart has proven to be a very talented actress capable of playing a wide range of roles. Here she gives a lively, playful performance where she isn’t the helpless sidekick or the damsel in distress but gets to actively participate in the action. She’s as much an action hero as Mike is. Together they make for a likable couple and their relationship becomes the only remotely interesting aspect of the movie.
But even Eisenberg and Stewart aren’t strong enough to save “American Ultra.” The ending is ham-fisted and anticlimactic-- suggesting that all the trouble the C.I.A. went through trying to obtain and kill Mike was for nothing. Overall, the movie wastes a talented cast with an unimaginative story and a barrage of dull action sequences.