American Ultra is not quite the sum of its eclectic parts, but is strangely entertaining, nonetheless.
American Ultra revolves around Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a small town stoner who works at a crummy “Cash-N-Carry” convenience mart, and spends his off hours doting on his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), in between joints. For as long as he can remember, Mike’s had crippling anxiety problems that prevent him from showing Phoebe the life of adventure she deserves, forcing her to settle for a hazy and mundane existence in their crappy town, doing the same routine day in and out.
Mike’s buzz gets harshed the night a mysterious woman named Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) appears in Cash-N-Carry dropping some bewildering codewords along with a warning: Mike is the target of some very bad government agents. At first Mike is too stoned to really grasp the severity of the situation, but when demented assassins start popping up out of the woodwork, the only thing more shocking than the guns pointed at Mike’s head is his sudden ability to turn the tables. With Phoebe as dazed and confused as he is, Mike sets out to find answers about his past and the strange skills he begins manifesting – even as a snarky CIA bureaucrat (Topher Grace) closes in for the kill.
The brainchild of Chronicle writer Max Landis and orchestrated by Project X director Nima Nourizadeh, American Ultra is not quite the sum of its eclectic parts, but is strangely entertaining, nonetheless. The film is distinctly the work of its writer (Landis), with a voice and rhythm that is – for better and worse – unlike any other film in recent memory. It reminds one of Tarantino’s early days writing scripts for films like True Romance – which is probably the most accurate comparison that can be made to Landis’ spy action stoner love dramedy.
The oddity of American Ultra is that it serves each of the individual genre in the mix, but never quite feels like an organic and smooth blending of the material. The stoner love story between Mike and Phoebe is as touching as a really good indie film; the over-the-top action bits feel like a spy genre love-letter in the vein of Kingsman; and the comedy is funny. And yet, transitions where the stoner love story slides into action or comedy mostly feel clunky, as if the movie has personality disorder rather than wide-ranging tastes.
The question is whether or not the clashing pieces of American Ultra failed to gel on the page and the screen – or just on the screen. There’s a strong case to be made for the latter, as Nourizadeh’s direction proves to be uneven – an unsure hand that only amplifies the disjointed feel of the material. Sequences of action and comic book-style violence are satisfying and fun in the way they are staged and shot; but quieter quieter moments of character building (like Mike and Phoebe’s relationship subplot) look low-budget indie, complete with drab and grainy cinematography by Michael Bonvillain (Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters). There are a few interesting visual experiments that Nourizadeh throws in (a dramatic/action scene in a drug dealer’s blacklight rumpus room), but outside of some nice stuntwork in fight sequences, it’s not a particularly interesting or pretty film to look at.
On a character level, Landis’ script gets a boost from a great cast, which makes the journey (and all the freaks we meet) an enjoyable ride for the most part. Eisenberg and Stewart (reuniting after the 2009 film Adventureland), are surprisingly charming and affecting as an onscreen couple, to the point that the Mike / Phoebe storyline feels powerful enough to have been a more straightforward and serious indie romance film. That’s not to take away from both lead actors on the comedy or action fronts; both get nods for sharp wit and pratfalls – not to mention, impressive chops in the fight/shootout sequences. Together, they make it seem easy to buy these two stoner characters caught up in a crazy set of circumstances.
The supporting cast is a collection of quality (if not star power). John Leguizamo anchors the zany character (caricature?) that is Rose, Mike’s drug dealer; Connie Britton plays on her Friday Night Lights mother hen persona, dropping foul-mouthed banter and even some smackdown muscle as Lasseter. Topher Grace walks a fine (and likely divisive) line as the snarky Adrian Yates, a character that’s sure to grind on some viewers’ nerves with every line spoken. Finally, Justified star Walton Goggins once again steals the spotlight, playing Yates’ hilariously demented and psychotic asset, “Laugher”.
In the end, American Ultra is a genre-bending experiment that yields middling results. For viewers willing to take the strange ride with little expectation in mind, it will probably be a fun journey. Those hoping for one aspect of the film to dominate (the action, comedy or romance), will find the constant hops between all three somewhat unsatisfying. As for theatrical viewing? It’s definitely not a must. But for matinee prices, you could definitely do worse in August (see: Hitman).
American Ultra is now in theaters. It is 95 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.
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