Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”)
Written by: Max Landis (“Chronicle”)
As part of a marketing campaign for “American Ultra” at Comic-Con, convention-goers who happened to be holders of a prescription for medical marijuana were able to be hand delivered branded weed and paraphernalia from the film. Gaining headlines and controversy, this stunt-marketing ploy was a dream scenario for Lionsgate; they got the word out, distracted audiences and got them interested into a movie that has nothing else going for it.
One night while working in a convience store, a stoner, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), is visited by a woman who utters a secret code phrase to him. Unbeknownst to Mike, he is a trained CIA sleeper agent and when his life is threatened, ends up killing two guys with skills he was not aware he possessed. As he meets up with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), Mike must figure out why people are trying to kill him and why his own skills as an assassin are second to none.
Reuniting the principle cast from 2009’s “Adventureland,” Eisenberg and Stewart are once again paired together as a romantic couple. For Eisenberg, it’s a return to the type of frazzled, awkward, one-note performances he has displayed in the past. It isn’t entirely his fault, but his drug-induced paranoia that the humor relies upon isn’t sold well enough to get laughs. Stewart, who has been on a nice little run of solid performances with films like “Camp X-Ray” and “Clouds of Sils Maria” is fine, if not unspectacular. While the lead performances can at least be stomached, a few of the supporting ones are unforgivable. Most notable of those are Topher Grace, who should really stop attempting to play a bad guy, and Walton Goggins whose character of “The Laugher” feels like an interpretation of The Joker from a straight-to-video Asylum movie.
The script from Max Landis is perhaps the most troublesome element of a very troubled movie. Starting off with a thud, “American Ultra” has an almost instantaneous lack of energy. As it desperately searches for a tone, jokes miss left and right and anything character driven goes nowhere. When the actual plot of the film kicks in, it becomes painfully generic, feeling like an extended and rehashed version of a superhero film where a seemingly normal person realizes they have powers.
It’s the least of its problems compared to the muddy narrative. When it is revealed that Mike was part of a CIA project, everything that follows is unclear. The motives of characters make no sense and the plot twists are lame and more importantly, riddled with holes. With gunshots, stabbings, explosions and more, Landis and director Nima Nourizadah introduce a violent streak as the plot continues. It’s an odd turn, especially considering the violence is almost always meaningless (and made worse by really bad CGI blood spatter) and makes for a confusing, conflicting tone.
Flat-lined from the get-go, “American Ultra” is a poorly conceived disaster. It’s hard to tell where exactly Landis and Nourizadah went wrong, but the film sleepwalks for 90 minutes, throwing in obligatory plot contrivances just for the hell of it. There isn’t one single element of the film that works and its very existence, especially given the talent involved, is baffling.