Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a deadbeat stoner with an anxiety issue, whose biggest feature of his small-town West Virginia life is his in-progress graphic novel about a superhero monkey. His girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), considering how much she takes care of him, might as well be his mother. In one romantic evening, Mike looks at a car accident and reflects: “the car was always moving, and then the tree, which was never moving at all, managed to completely stop the car. Am I that tree, Phoebe?”
In the Nima Nourizadeh-directed American Ultra, it’s just one touch of a few touches of poignancy sprinkled amongst action sequences, stoner references, and comedy parodying the two. Action springs forth when Mike swiftly and adeptly kills two men who approach him after Mike discovers them tampering with his car. Flabbergasted by his seemingly instinctive martial arts know-how and military precision, he is sent into a tizzy and could really, really use a hit right about now.
There might be some clues about Mike in a parallel plot that, at first, appears to have no relation to him. In the C.I.A. headquarters, agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) receives an order to partake in a ploy to assassinate their top agent, who has become a great liability. The top agent in question? Mike Howell, who was trained to be a killing machine before his memory was wiped.
Granted, the idea of a stoner finding out he or she is actually a lethal agent is pretty funny, and could easily sustain an entire movie. Eisenberg fulfills that idea with a quirky and awkward acting job that perfectly matches Mike’s stoned-out-of-his-mind personality. It’s fun. But for one reason or another, American Ultra doesn’t live up to its promise as a unified whole.
The movie’s first pratfall is a supporting cast that can’t hope to follow Eisenberg’s lead, starting with Stewart. In a way, she looks perfect to play Phoebe, a fellow stoner, caretaker, and lover. But the fitness is merely superficial. Stewart is already notorious for her acting ability (or lack thereof), and the same holds true here, coming up short to create a nice chemistry between Phoebe and Mike. The performance plague follows with fellow cast members, most of whom feel like they are just reading off a script instead of truly absorbing and understanding their characters.
Perhaps one happy exception is John Leguizamo as Rose, a stylish, self-absorbed drug dealer who brings a heavy dose of douchey energy to every scene he’s in. That’s a good thing; it’s hilarious. But Rose only appears in a handful of scenes, and once he kicks into high gear, he’s killed off.
American Ultra’s identity is lies in its mixing of comedy, action, and stoner genres, yet it doesn’t play any of them particularly well. All too often, jokes miss their mark and fall flat, as if an amateur comedy filmmaker's class project. At first this seems to be due to American Ultra’s stoner humor, which is admittedly a narrower scope of comedy. But in my packed theater, most all of the jokes that didn’t involve Eisenberg were met with an uncomfortable silence. American Ultra has some flashes of funny, but nowhere near enough of them to sustain 100 minutes.
Even the action sequences (which one would hope to be great, especially considering it’s the C.I.A. we're dealing with here) leave a lot on the table. Disjointed, uninspired editing and low-grade sound design give American Ultra even more of an unwelcome student film sheen, even with its fantastic blood effects and action-based humor.
There’s a glimmer of hope when Mike accepts his true identity and his mission, but by then, the movie’s already over. It’s too bad that American Ultra ends just when it finally starts to get interesting. If a great movie idea was the car, American Ultra was the tree.
Written by Max Landis. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh.
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, and Connie Britton.