Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner from Liman, West Virginia, where he works as a convenience store clerk and lives with his longtime, too-good-for-him girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). Mike’s been planning on proposing to her for the longest time and just before embarking on a vacation to Hawaii to do so, he experiences another panic attack before their flight.
Turns out those panic attacks go beyond just some personal disorder. Mike is actually a sleeper agent from the Ultra Program created by the CIA’s Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), and those attacks are designed to act like a built-in shock collar. Upon learning that CIA mid-level manager Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who sees Mike’s attempted trip as a security risk, has ordered for Howell’s assassination, Lasseter visits Howell in secret, activating him through a series of codes in hopes it keeps him alive.
Not content to just stick with one, American Ultra tackles a variety of genre elements. It’s a rom-com, slacker/stoner comedy, and dark comedy, all smothered in the bloodbath of its action/thriller premise. It fails at each of them.
From Nima Nourizadeh, the director of Project X, and Max Landis, the screenwriter of Chronicle, American Ultra could’ve been a darkly fun and edgy take on the brainwashed super-soldier genre. Think The Bourne Identity if it had a baby with Pineapple Express. The problem it runs into is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to take itself seriously or be a send-up of the genre, and the glaring shifts in tone, most notably through the bleak use of violence amidst the stoner jokes, are bad enough to give viewers a severe case of whiplash.
That’s not to say it’s impossible to combine two disparate genres into one film. The best example I can think of to mesh a legitimate onscreen romance with a dark and brutal comic edge would be True Romance, or you could go even more disturbed and exploitative and go for Stone’s controversial masterpiece Natural Born Killers. Both of those films, however, were handled with the deft touch of filmmakers Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and the late Tony Scott. Nourizadeh’s experience, on the other hand, is a raunchy found footage flick from 2012, though to his credit, this film’s production value is clearly about ten steps up from Project X.
Doesn’t say much, but I guess this film should be glad to take whatever compliment it can get.
Equally to blame, Max Landis’s script, one that isn’t anywhere as absurd as its intriguing premise needs it to be, ruins its potential through all of its plot holes and a useless character twist involving Kristen Stewart that doesn’t add up. Worse, Landis utilizes a flashback device, opening at the end and then rewinding back to the start, that sucks out all the suspense this film could’ve had regarding Jesse Eisenberg’s character. We obviously know from the trailers what he turns into, but why spoil whether he lives or dies?
Also, Landis’s depiction of the CIA is puzzling to say the least. Not that a film of this sort needs an authentic depiction of the government agency, but even for this film’s standards, its portrayal is beyond ludicrous. One, it doesn’t help that it’s hard to buy a sniveling, pencil-pushing, brown-nosing middle manager being able to execute rogue assassinations; two, without giving anything away, the film closes by leaving us to assume we’re now supposed to root for the very organization we were rooting against for the entire movie.
Looks like Landis can give former Chronicle collaborator and Fantastic Four director Josh Trank some competition in who can stink up August the worst.
At the very least, Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart share an easy, sweet rapport with each other, one that was put to much better use in 2009’s Adventureland, which kinda helps overcome Eisenberg not quite being able to pull off the loveable stoner idiot. Despite Nourizadeh’s mishandling of tone and Landis’s uneven script, the two stars lend a tad bit of credibility to the romance and allow some of the jokes to land solely ’cause of their chemistry.
Not faring as well is an utterly wasted assemblage of talented character actors who make up the supporting cast. With the exception of Connie Britton who gets at least something to do as the agent trying protect Howell, the cast consists of an underused Walter Goggins, who normally can be terrifying in the right role, as Yates’s demented assassin; a woefully miscast and nonthreatening Topher Grace as the primary villain; John Leguizamo, who can either be really good (Summer of Sam) or really terrible (The Pest), is horribly misused in a crappy throwaway role as Howell’s drug dealer, and Bill Pullman shows up for about two minutes.
Following this film and last year’s The Equalizer (a better film, mind you, but one that didn’t need Pullman’s character), these “blink and you’ll miss him” roles seem to be where Pullman’s career is at now. For God’s sake, he got more to do in You Kill Me and he was still like only the tenth most important character in that film.
Underneath this mess is a kernel of an intriguing idea that’s given more life than it deserves by the natural chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. It’s unfortunate that whatever potential American Ultra may have had gets mired in the jarring tone shifts, uninspired action and needless story twists, which only serve to waste the talented actors involved who are all deserving of better material.
Sure, it’s not boring, but then again, neither is a house fire.