The simplest way to describe American Ultra would be to call it, “a stoner comedy riff on The Bourne Identity.” That's more or less true, but it doesn't quite capture what a strange, tonally wonky movie this is. This is a Frankenstein monster of a movie patched together with bits and pieces of juvenile swagger, serious-minded romance, ridiculously broad comedy, clumsy stabs at psychological insight, Michael Bay movies, bloody R-rated violence and pounding techno music cues. It's sort of interesting, but it rarely works.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour) and Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria) are stoners who live together in a small town in West Virginia. Mike has a job as a convenience store clerk, and is seriously considering asking Phoebe to marry him. Unfortunately, Mike frequently suffers from severe panic attacks and emotional breakdowns, and he worries that he'll only drag Phoebe down if he convinces her to marry him.
Eventually, we learn that there's a reason for Mike's issues: he's the sole survivor of an experimental CIA training/brainwashing program called “Ultra,” which was created by Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights). When Victoria learns that her chief rival Adrian Yates (Topher Grace, That '70s Show) – who runs his own brainwashing program called “Tough Guy” - is planning to have Mike assassinated, she decides to intervene. She travels to West Virginia, strolls into the convenience store and gives Mike the secret code designed to activate his super-spy abilities. There's just one problem: Mike has been smoking so much pot that the code doesn't kick in right away.
Naturally, it isn't long before Mike springs back into action, which is when American Ultra transforms into a bonkers piece of hyperviolent mayhem. The film's recurring action gag is that Mike is seemingly capable of killing anyone with anything, and the film has fun with the idea that he can make a bloody mess out of people with something as ordinary as a spoon or a metal dustpan. Unfortunately, the action sequences grow tiresome pretty quickly, mostly because this is one of those action movies that seems thoroughly convinced of its own awesomeness. Riding a roller coaster is fun, but it's less fun when the person sitting next to you is shouting, “HAHA THIS IS GREAT, RIGHT?” the entire time.
Still, the two leads are curiously compelling. Eisenberg and Stewart aren't exactly the sort of actors who immediately spring to mind when you think of stoner types (both have a tense, fidgety, wiry quality), but the casting is fairly canny: Mike and Phoebe are stoners because they have a lot of suppressed anxiety to deal with. The film treats their complicated relationship (which becomes even more complicated after a mid-film reveal) seriously, and the manic comic tone dissolves during their scenes. As the film proceeds, both characters are put through the wringer and become increasingly bloody and battered (by the closing moments, both look a bit like Carrie on prom night). Even so, they often seem only half-focused on the conflict at hand, instead placing the bulk of their attention on whether their love is strong enough to withstand all of this craziness.
Unfortunately, this surprisingly sensitive material meshes very poorly with everything else. Most of the time, American Ultra feels like it was written by a teenage boy who's just seen a handful of Shane Black movies and is desperately trying to match their violent, provocative hilarity. The supporting cast is loaded with talent, but it's alarming to see how badly the film wastes assets like John Leguizamo (playing a hyperactive crook who likes throwing the n-word around), Tony Hale (stranded in a series of dull scenes as a conflicted CIA official), Bill Pullman (who spends most of his screentime scowling), Connie Britton (saddled with an underwritten part) and Walton Goggins (whose performance here can best be described as, “Walton Goggins does his impression of Mongol from Blazing Saddles”). Surprisingly, the only standout is Topher Grace, who manages to wring a few laughs out of his two-note character (for the record, the notes are “smug” and “scared,” which make for a nice combination).
The tonal disconnect in Max Landis' story would be enough to make American Ultra feel off, but that feeling extends to Nima Nourizadeh's direction, which oscillates between “trying too hard” and “not trying hard enough.” It's surprising to see a movie of this size containing so many scenes in which the lighting feels off, and surprising to see a studio comedy that looks this ugly: the combination of dingy, flat-looking nighttime scenes and lifeless office scenes bathed in depressing fluorescent light make the film look drab, while visually aggressive sequences presented via ultraviolet light and crude, violent animation make it feel too desperate. There are a lot of intriguing individual pieces here, but none of them are quite strong enough to overcome a finished product that feels oddly unlikable.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
Release Year: 2015