I cannot recall a single moment during all the cloak and dagger mysteries, bone-crunching fisticuffs and metal-twisting car chases of the Bourne franchise, where I thought to myself “Dude, I sure wish that, like, somebody could do a crossover between this Matt Damon badassness, and like, Pineapple Express! Duuuuuude!”. Clearly though, I don’t subscribe to the same school of thought as screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle), who has penned nearly that exact premise for American Ultra.
The Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) directed action-comedy flick sees Jesse Eisenberg as layabout/smokealot convenience store clerk Mike Howell, who spends his time either stoned, drawing comic strips about space apes, futilely working up the courage to propose to his longtime girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) or some combination of all three. That is when he isn’t being psychologically crippled with inexplicable and unbearable panic attacks every time he tries to leave the narcoleptic West Virginian town that he and Phoebe reside in.
Meanwhile, CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) discovers that the failed experimental Ultra program – to create a perfect sleeper assassin – which she had headed has been mothballed by snotty company rival Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) and his Tough Guy program, with Yates sending his operatives to take out the sole remaining Ultra asset: A totally oblivious Mike. Lasseter, feeling empathy for her ex-charge – who has no idea what he is since the CIA tampered with his memories – decides to activate the milquetoast Mike with a series of code words so that he can defend himself against the Tough Guy operatives sent to kill him, but thanks to his constant drug use the results are less than optimal even if they are explosive.
Which is actually a pretty fair summation of American Ultra as a whole. Eisenberg and Stewart make for fairly capable and charming leads as they find their lives tossed into a whirlwind of blood, bullets and bongs after Mike’s latent training eventually kicks in and he brutally kills the first two Tough Guy operatives with a spoon and a cup of noodle soup. Who needs guns? Eisenberg switches back and forth between slacker and action hero (slacktion hero?) mode with reasonably little effort, while Stewart is certainly no Meryl Streep but has upgraded to the necessary amount of facial expressions to at least keep your attention on-screen.
Topher Grace plays the smarmy brown-noser well, even if he does occasionally dip into cartoon villain territory as he constantly escalates the situation to absurd levels, while Walton Goggins has a memorably ridiculous turn as Laugher, one of the Tough Guys sent after Mike. John Leguizamo also puts in a brief but funny turn as Mike’s drug dealer Rose, who gets caught up in the whole debacle when he shelters Mike and Phoebe.
Director Nima Nourizadeh proved with his previous directorial effort, the party flick Project X, that he knew how to navigate his way through ever-rising levels of ridiculousness, and that comes in handy here as the action ramps up neatly. He particularly does a great job of showing Mike’s ability to improvise very violent solutions out of sticky situations – probably left more sticky because of the abundance of blood – using basic household items.
But unfortunately Nourizadeh’s lack of action choreography experience does shine through dully on occasion, for while the action is satisfyingly visceral, making full use of its R-rating, it very seldomly rises above anything more than just satisfactory. Nourizadeh may be competent, but there’s no real individuality on display here which stops the action from truly living up to it’s premise (even a climactic third act showdown in a convenience store offers little more than a rerun of the off-the-shelf carnage we’ve seen recently in The Equalizer).
Not really helping American Ultra to clamber above the masses to truly great levels is the fact that Max Landis’ script draws inspiration from several other films that have mostly done this better. Landis’ work is undoubtedly not bad, and he certainly injects his own manic unhinged online personality into a number of laugh-out-loud details, but you can’t help but think that you’ve been here, smoked that before.
Get over this lack of scripting originality and a distinct directorial panache though, and you’ll find a solidly entertaining if non-challenging movie that has a lot in common with its dopey hero: It may occasionally get panicky or underachieve based on its artistic talent, but it does offer some bloody surprises that may not be high-brow (or at least not the latter half of that) but should leave you with a goofy grin or two.
Last Updated: October 7, 2015