“American Ultra” is a hard-R Jason Bourne-meets-Cheech and Chong — a government conspiracy action comedy (with a romantic angle tossed in) dreamed up by two young stoners while hanging out in their basement. It is an intriguing idea that falters in execution: The movie falls victim to a dull, uninspired plot, repetitive action and an uneven tone.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a stoner who’s been living happily with his cool stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) for the last five years. Working his mundane job at a convenience store, he writes and draws the adventures of Apollo Ape and plans on proposing to Phoebe. That is until everything gets crazy.
Unbeknownst to him, Mike is actually a CIA agent, and one night he’s “reactivated” by agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) when she receives word that Mike is going to be killed. Fellow CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) launches a full-on offensive, practically taking over the small West Virginia town Mike and Phoebe live in.
Director Nima Nourizadeh throws us into this chaos without much explanation (mirroring Mike’s own confusion), but we go along with it because we hope to find out why Mike is now Public Enemy No. 1.
Soon enough, however, the intrigue runs out and “American Ultra” becomes a drag. Max Landis’ screenplay runs out of ideas and surprises, turning into just another “on-the-run-from-government agents” picture, with comedy sprinkled throughout.
Yates is a one-dimensional bad guy. The action is repetitive, and the scenes themselves lack creativity. They’re poorly shot with a dim, disorienting and shaky camera,.
The movie certainly doesn’t shy away from gore (it earns its R rating), but the violence isn’t used inventively anyway and the story around it becomes so dull.
The origin of Mike’s abilities is vaguely established; by the end, we still don’t know much about the government program he was a part of, and more importantly, we don’t know why Mike is such a liability. The decision to kill him appears to come out of thin air. We’re never given an answer, and frankly, we stop caring after a while.
The movie isn’t trying to be a satire or parody; it isn’t trying to comment on the government conspiracy action genre or the stoner comedy. Instead (with the shaky-cam cinematography), the film feels planted in reality; it wants you to believe that Mike and Phoebe are a real stoner couple who get wrapped up with the CIA. The picture’s violence is brutal and realistic. At the same time, “American Ultra” also wants to be zany, which creates tonal confusion. The film wants to be gritty and intense like the Jason Bourne films but also goofy and outlandish like a stoner comedy, a combination that doesn’t entirely work. Nourizadeh should have taken a much more cartoonish approach.
On the bright side, Eisenberg and Stewart keep “American Ultra” watchable. Eisenberg’s typical fast-talking, nervous-on-screen persona is perfectly suited for paranoid, mixed-up Mike, though Stewart does the best work. Ever since “Twilight,” Stewart has proven to be a very talented actress capable of playing a wide range of roles. Here, she gives a lively, playful performance where she isn’t the helpless sidekick or the damsel in distress but gets to actively participate in the action. Together, they make for a likable couple, and their relationship becomes the only remotely interesting aspect of the movie.
But even Eisenberg and Stewart aren’t strong enough to save “American Ultra.” The ending is ham-fisted and anticlimactic, suggesting that all the trouble the CIA went through was for nothing. Overall, the movie wastes a talented cast with an unimaginative story and a barrage of dull action sequences.