From the opening moments, where Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart exhale huge clouds of pot smoke that were obviously added in post-production by a budget-friendly VFX house, something about American Ultra just feels… off. It’s hard to put your finger on right away, but after about thirty minutes it finally dawns on you – this is a really, really bad film.
After a lengthy opening voiceover, we land on an image of Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) sitting in an airport, clutching a pair of tickets to Hawaii while Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is locked in a bathroom stall in the throes of a panic attack. The couple miss their flight, and the awkward conversation that ensues during the drive home lets the audience know that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened.
Meanwhile, at CIA Headquarters, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) receives an anonymous phone call warning her that one of her assets has been targeted for termination. She suspects that smarmy, hotshot Agent Yates (Topher Grace) is behind the plot, an assumption that Yates is all too happy to confirm. We get the sense that some serious bad blood exists between the two agents, but we have no idea why, and the film has zero interest in filling in those blanks.
The asset in question turns out to be Mike, whose anxious, pot-addled exterior is hiding a lethal government sleeper agent. In an effort to save Mike’s life, Lasseter visits the convenience store where he works and recites a series of code words that should “activate” him – instead, Mike mistakes them for song lyrics, and Lasseter resigns herself to defeat. But later that night, when Mike dispatches a pair of Yates’ men with nothing more than a spoon and a cup of noodles, it appears that Lasseter might have knocked something loose.
With two dead bodies in the convenience store parking lot, Mike’s panic kicks into overdrive, and Phoebe arrives just in time to take everything in before the duo are arrested by the local sheriff. Unbeknownst to local law enforcement, while they’re busy questioning Mike, Yates is mobilizing an entire force of elite soldiers to finish the job, even if it means wiping Mike’s tiny little West Virginia town off the face of the map.
Blending copious amounts of action into a stoner comedy certainly isn’t a new idea – Pineapple Express found great success with this formula – but American Ultra is so focused on the action that it seems to forget that it’s supposed to be a comedy. Every fight scene is horrifically violent, and not in the silly, over-the-top fashion of other R-rated action comedies like Kick-Ass or Kingsman: The Secret Service. Watching Mike use a pair of handcuffs as a makeshift set of brass knuckles to pound someone’s face into a bloody pulp isn’t funny – it’s stomach-churning.
That being said, there are times when American Ultra tries to be funny, but its idea of humor leaves much to be desired. John Leguizamo has a small role as Mike’s drug dealer, who seems to be constructed entirely of clichés, and Walton Goggins shows up for a paycheck as a cackling assassin named Laugher. That’s right – there’s a character in this film named Laugher, whose sole identifying trait is the fact that he laughs. I wish I was joking.
The character of Yates is especially troublesome, as we’re never given any information about his background or his motivations. Grace tries to have fun with the role, but the script just shoehorns him into mustache-twirling territory. He’s an evil guy, because the script says so, and there’s a particularly awful scene in which he berates and belittles Phoebe over her attraction to Mike with a series of vile insults about her sexuality. It’s a brief exchange, but it’s so mean-spirited and misogynistic that it comes across as far more disturbing than the never-ending onslaught of graphic violence the film offers.
In the right hands, American Ultra could have been a great action comedy – but those hands do not belong to director Nima Nourizadeh, whose previous effort was the abysmally unfunny Project X. He’s got a great eye for action, but seems to have no idea how to balance it with the humor that a concept like this demands. I’d be interested in seeing what he could do with a full-fledged spy film, but hopefully he steers clear of comedy from now on.
At its best, American Ultra feels like a cheap attempt to replicate the Pineapple Express blueprint, an overly ambitious goal that it never comes close to achieving. At its worst, it’s a flat, boring comedy punctuated by ghastly displays of violence that elicits plenty of shuddering and squirming, but almost no laughter whatsoever. Stay home and smoke up instead – you’re guaranteed to have a lot more fun.