If “American Ultra” knew what it wanted to be, it may not have turned out to be the disaster that it is. It’s not funny enough for a stoner comedy and the considerable amount of violence isn’t clever enough to be a dark action movie. It also doesn’t help that everyone, other than Kristen Stewart, has their overacting pants on for the entire movie.
The unfortunate thing is that Max Landis’ screenplay is a fairly interesting concept that gradually has its wheels fly off. The idea that a stoner living in a tiny West Virginia town is a CIA sleeper agent, waiting for the right turn of phrase to click the “on switch” in his head, turning him into a deadly assassin is quite inventive and humorous. That premise just isn’t enough to keep “American Ultra” from becoming an exhausting bore.
The aforementioned stoner is Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who spends all of his time doing one of two things: smoking pot with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart), or smoking pot while working at an extremely downtrodden convenience store. He does spritz in some comic book style art, but only to break the monotony of weed, work, and his special lady friend.
Mike’s life of being a self aware, neurotic deadbeat takes a serious turn for the worse when CIA Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) walks into his store and delivers Mike’s special “become a madman” code words. It turns out that Victoria is trying to save Mike from an elaborate murder plot, all concocted by super evil CIA agent Yates (Topher Grace).
The town is then put under lockdown via the always nefarious government agency FEMA (thanks a bunch, X-Files) and Yates brings in a team of super soldiers to hunt down the now active, spoon-and-ramen-as-weapons toting Mike.
“American Ultra” becomes the lamest cat and mouse game ever, as Mike and Phoebe go through a series of adventures from their local police station to Mike’s foul mouthed, drug dealer Rose’s (John Leguizamo) house. Leading the chase is Laugher (Walton Goggins), a cackling, perpetually sweating mentally ill trained killer.
It’s all fairly ridiculous and, other than the clever way that Mike uses household items to kill people in bloody ways, a timewaste. It feels like “American Ultra” wants us to laugh at the grotesque violence, but director Nima Nourizadeh seems to revel in over the top blood spatter so much that it’s impossible to find any of it comedic.
Almost every single character is one note, other than Kristen Stewart’s Phoebe. She seems to be fully engaged in the role and having a blast, especially in the second half of the movie. Everyone around her is so cartoon-like that she brings a level of normalcy to an otherwise bizarre cast of characters.
The other actors are right in their comfort zone, which in this case is not a good thing. Leguizamo is loud and obnoxious in an extremely small role that he’s seemingly done hundreds of times before. Goggins’ role is so poorly written and executed that his character’s mental disability feels exploitative when there should be built in pity.
Grace has become sleazy guy in a suit personified. There’s no doubt that Nourizadeh and Landis want us to despise him, but Grace screeches and whines so much that his presence simply numbs the viewer, causing you to hate the actor instead of the villain.
There is a greater than good chance that Jesse Eisenberg is a one trick pony. He stutters, makes awkward faces, and seems uncomfortable at all times in every single movie he is in.
It’s no different in “American Ultra.” The only change is that he snaps to life at a moment’s notice then kills a guy with a dustpan. The initial giggles that come from seeing this skinny, long haired pothead become a killing machine go away very quickly once Eisenberg gets back to being unable to not say “like” every four words.
There really isn’t much to like about “American Ultra.” It has an intriguing start, but doesn’t hit the comedic or stylistic highs of what it really wants to be, which is “Pineapple Express.” That movie’s violence was all done with jokes in mind, whereas “American Ultra” devolves into a half baked action movie devoid of humor.
It’s not good when the funniest scene of the entire movie is the last one or when the end credits, an extremely cool animated sequence featuring Mike’s comic book creations, are more creative than everything that happens before it.