After their first outing together in Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart return to star in American Ultra, the second film from director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X). The lovechild of a Jason Bourne spy flick and a stoner comedy, the film is crammed with action, laughs, and excessive stylised violence.
Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is a loner clerk in a small town mini-mart, that fills his time with hits from his bong and drawing his comic book character, Apollo Ape. Unable to leave town due to severe panic attacks, he lives with his saintly girlfriend (Stewart) who essentially takes care of the helpless stoner. That is, until a rogue CIA operative (Connie Britton) mutters a few words to him and activates him as a sleeper agent. Now, Mike must contend with his new killing-machine abilities and the CIA task force, led by Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), out to eliminate him with an endless line of assassins.
Eisenberg is great as a stoner Bourne, and most of the comedy comes form the obvious contrast between his slow and, at times, dim-witted nature, and his new efficient killing abilities. Stewart does equally well with her grungy girlfriend, and adds a bit of quirk to what could have been a rather bland role; although it appears that the dyed but faded hair and ripped jeans aren’t that far outside of her comfortable zone. The few action scenes that she’s involved in are great, which is why it’s such a shame that towards the end of the film that she’s relegated to being the damsel-in-distress for Mike to save and almost lacks any ability to fight on her own. They both have great chemistry but it’s more as best friends, even a brother and sister type relationship, rather than anything remotely sexual, which makes the films reliance on them as a couple slightly problematic. Although with a midway twist that is fairly apparent from the get go and isn’t very well executed, this discord in their relationship is somewhat explainable.
The supporting cast is fairly packed, and most deliver strong performances, especially Britton (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) whose rogue agent is one of the more solid elements of the film. Grace (Interstellar) does his best, but his role is somewhat undercooked and his turn as villain is a little underwhelming. Bill Pullman (The Equalizer) makes an appearance as a CIA bureaucrat that at least provides the necessary shadowy agency boss, and Tony Hale (VEEP) gets a couple of nice comedic moments although his role is definitely blown out of proportion. Walter Goggins (Django Unchained) and John Leguizamo (Kick-Ass 2) make it out the worst, with performances that are just too cartoony and over the top to work in the world that Nourizadeh has created, but it’s by no fault of their own and they would have worked if the film had succeeded in pulling off the graphic novel style it so clearly wanted.
The film has many similarities to stoner comedy Pineapple Express and strives for a cinematic style in the way of a graphic novel based film like Scott Pilgram vs. the World, but where both of these films had a clear vision in their genres, American Ultra seems unwilling to commit to any one specific genre style. Thus, it lacks the grounded reality of the former film that is needed for the comedy in the more outrageous moments to land, and the committed graphic flair of the latter. As a result, there are certain elements that come off as being overly cartoonish that clash against the more serious, action orientated moments, and it becomes confusing to follow a world that switches back-and-forth on the scale from dramatic to silly within a few beats.
One of the biggest missed opportunities of the film is the misuse of the opposing assassins sent to eliminate Mike. The first two sent into the town are Laugher (Goggins) and Crane (Monique Ganderton), who we’re told are part of a rather large team. Their over the top and cartoony personas make it appear as if a cavalcade of unique assassins with varying personalities are about to descend one after the other for Mike to defeat, in a similar vein to the League of Ramona’s Evil Exes in the aforementioned Scott Pilgram. Instead, Crane is soon dispatched and while Laugher sticks around in a last-minute storyline that attempts to use him as a what-if parallel for Mike, from there on out, only nameless soldiers are sent in.
The film is enjoyable enough that most of these issues can be forgiven, but the one sin that might turn some viewers off is that the film leans heavily on requiring the dislodging of logic. Many parts of the plot are at best illogical or overly convenient, and the audience is asked many times to essentially look the other way so that the film can have it’s fun. The CIA decides to set up a base in the town rather than just send in it’s assassins (and for some reason, Grace’s agent needs to be on site), a drone’s ability to bomb relies entirely on Hale’s CIA operative to fire it from the Langley headquarters for no apparent reason other than to involve his character, and the overall premise of the film is questionable when you begin to ask why exactly Mike must be eliminated in the first place apart from Grace’s character’s loose motivation. The film’s moral stance also becomes a bit muddled towards the end, as the clear black-and-white lines of good and evil that run throughout most of the story begin to merge into a hazy grey area, that will leave most audiences questioning whether or not it was actually the good or bad guys that won in the end.