There’s enough of a solid foundation holding up American Ultra to make you logically expect more than it ultimately has to offer. The film has its moments, but most of those are due to the efforts of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who do their best to make this picture worthwhile. Less an stoner adventure comedy and more of a meandering action flick, director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis never seem on the same page with each other, no pun intended. Nourizadeh’s direction at times even seems actively at war with Landis’ script, which doesn’t help out Eisenberg and Stewart. The first third of the movie if full of promise, but after the midway point a sinking feeling starts to come over you, with the final act hammering home just how much of a missed opportunity this film truly is. Either more of a focus on humor or more of a focus on the admittedly mostly effective romance between the leads would have helped make for a less scattershot endeavor, or at least I hope so. Elements of a quality movie are here, but American Ultra values visual stimulants over coherence or overt enjoyability. This isn’t your garden variety stoner flick, that’s for sure. All the same, I do wish we’d gotten a better one than we got. American Ultra sporadically tantalizes, but it mostly just disappoints.
The set up for this one is pretty good, I have to concede that. Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is a stoner convenience store clerk with half assed dreams of making a comic book. He sketches out adventures for a character he’s created, but mostly he just gets high with his girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Stewart) or his dealer Rose (John Leguizamo). Whenever he tries to leave the town he’s from, even to take Phoebe on a vacation and propose to her, he has a nervous breakdown. He has no idea what’s wrong with him, but he’ll soon find out. Mike is a covert government agent, part of the Ultra program, essentially a sleeper soldier. When CIA operative Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) decides to terminate the program, and Mike in the process, fellow agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) activates Mike. As such, when assassins come for him, he disposes them with ease, much to his surprise. From then on, Mike and Phoebe are on the run, trying to figure out more about Mike’s past and attempting to stay alive. Once American Ultra shifts more towards blood and guts as opposed to stoner musings, things go downhill, but at least it begins with promise. It’s just a shame that it can’t sustain.
I absolutely adored Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in the incredibly underrated coming of age story Adventureland, and here they’re easily the best part of this flick. They’re chemistry is again on point, with plenty of things subtly suggested between them. Eisenberg gets to be a bit of an action hero in this one here, and while he’s fine, that’s clearly not a strength for him. There’s nothing wrong with this performance, but it’s not among his best. The same can be said for Stewart, who’s solid but has been doing more impressive work of late. Again, when it’s just them together, things are on firm ground. As for the rest of the cast…not so much. John Leguizamo gets to chew the scenery in a few scenes, while both Connie Britton and Topher Grace are saddled with the lamest part of the story. Britton is totally wasted, while Grace just hams it up as a villain. Also given nothing to do is Bill Pullman as a higher up in the CIA, while other members of the cast here include Nash Edgerton, Walton Goggins, Stuart Greer, Tony Hale (wasted more than anyone), and Michael Papajohn. The highlights here are Eisenberg and Stewart though, no doubt. Even so, they can’t save this one.
Director Nima Nourizadeh has upped his game from Project X, but this is still far from a subtle work overall. That’s not inherently a bad thing, but Nourizadeh mainly wants to make a glossy action flick, while scribe Max Landis at least seems to have tried for something more. In all fairness, Landis doesn’t have an Oscar worthy script here or anything (it’s not even Chronicle level), but small details make this one show off its promise. Aside from the acting of the leads, the other thing I enjoyed here are the descriptions and then drawings of Mike’s comic. It’s small detail, but it gives the otherwise anonymous American Ultra some much needed personality.
Overall, American Ultra is mindless entertainment, just not especially fun mindless entertainment. Especially considering the bits and pieces that suggest a better film, this has to be considered a disappointment. I’ll watch Eisenberg and Stewart together in anything, but the movie just doesn’t give them enough to do. You quite frankly could do worse than this, considering it’s a late summer release, but you can do a lot better as well. I won’t say avoid American Ultra, but it’s nothing to really go out of your way to see. Alas…
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!