American Ultra (2015)
★ / ★★★★
Neither achingly funny enough to pass as a comedy nor as thrilling enough to take on a convincing guise of an action film, “American Ultra,” written by Max Landis and directed by Nima Nourizadeh, is all-around confused, constantly gasping for air with the hope of keeping the audience’s attention for one more minute. What results is a barely watchable gamble; show this movie on cable television, its scenes constantly interrupted by commercials, and it would be a small miracle if viewers decide to stick with it till the end. There is not enough intrigue in the screenplay to make it a compelling experience.
It is a shame because the plot involves a stoner named Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), who just so happens to be a sleeper agent for the CIA, activated one day by a lady (Connie Britton) simply by uttering a few strange lines. Mike, as it turns out, is no ordinary stoner living in a small town: He is a member of a four-hundred-million-dollar Ultra Program—people with a history of serial misdemeanors who were given a choice to become “assets,” or assassins, for the government. Soon, Mike is hunted by fellow assets from a different program—the Tough Guy project.
Although supposedly a stoner comedy, the characters are not shown being stoned very often. Instead, we see some long-term effects of smoking weed—slower mental faculties, some issues with quickly accessing memories, the manner in which thoughts are put into words. There are not enough images here that, if one were to watch the film after smoking a joint or two, would impress or stand out. In fact, the picture is for the most part visually unexciting.
This lack of excitement includes the action sequences. Perhaps most marginally tolerable, because there is an impression of glee about it, involves Mike having to put down assets in a grocery store using only objects that happen to be around him. This happens late in the film. The rest of the action scenes, however, are straightforward and boring: buildings explode and bullets hit bodies but notice there is an absence of significant consequences. Most of the time, people who get hurt or die are those with whom we are not invested in emotionally.
Even the relationship between Mike and his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) offers no excitement. Although Eisenberg and Stewart share an awkwardly endearing chemistry, their characters are not written deeply or thoughtfully enough that we feel as though we are discovering something new or interesting about them during their exchanges. There is no defined perspective. These are supposed to be young people who have ordinary jobs with ordinary dreams—until their worlds are turned inside out. Clearly, dramatic gravity is missing from the screenplay.
Fusing and mixing genres are especially difficult to pull off and “American Ultra” serves as testament to this fact. Although it is not unambitious, for this kind of film to work and work well, the writing must be so on point that surprises not only come in the form of plot twists—which just happen to have occasional shootouts—but also in terms of what we come to know or realize about its characters the more we spend time with them.