The unofficial sub-genre of films that American Ultra (opening today) best fits into is that of the “stoner movie.” And there are usually only three distinct types of people who react to films of this sub-genre: First, well, you guessed it, there are the stoners, who are the built-in target audience and who will no doubt support and defend the movie and its characters, if not in the theaters then eventually once they catch it on cable. Then you have the self-proclaimed “intellectuals,” who will either never watch it or will watch it and hate it, writing off any film of this nature as immature drivel, unworthy of focusing any of their brain cells on. Then there is a third group, the largest group of all, stuck somewhere in the middle, who can appreciate the pot-smoking culture and comedy that it breeds, but who leave the stoner film unfulfilled, knowing that most of what the film is based on is one tired cliche after another.
And if there is ever a film stuck in “middle” territory, it is American Ultra. It is slick and stylish, almost to an annoying degree, yet it features two better-than-they-should-be performances by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, who find themselves teaming up again after their cult 2009 hit, Adventureland. But while there is a lot to like in the bold direction by director Nima Nourizadeh and the B-movie script by Max Landis, there is much that doesn’t work.
Eisenberg plays “effed-up” stoner Mike Howell, who works the night shift (where else?) in a convenience store. He and his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) have the sort of romance born in the movies, a True Romance-style relationship, where two outcasts believe they are soul-mates based on the fact that they just “get” one another, outside world be damned. Elsewhere though, there is some sneaky-s**t brewing, dealing with FBI operative Victoria (Connie Britton), a mysterious villain (where have you been Bill Pullman?) and a horribly over-acting crooked agent (Topher Grace).
It turns out, Mike is some sort of secret operative, who, when mugged outside of his store, is able to use karate kill moves that he never knew he possessed. He is some kind of ingrained agent who doesn’t know he’s an agent, but suddenly everybody wants to kill him (including a bad-guy named “Laugher” played by Walton Goggins). It sends Mike and Phoebe on the run, first seeking shelter with his drug-dealer Rose (John Leguizamo, who gets most of the laughs), and eventually, of course, finding themselves coming face-to-face with their villainous counterparts.
The tone of the film reminded me of the goofy, cartoonish, video-game-inspired Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, that perhaps was left in a room of smoke for a bit too long. Nourizadeh does a good job of establishing interest early on, and the quirky characters – along with the fine performances from the two leads – helps us slowly engage in the enigma of who – and what – Mike Howell really is.
But somewhere along the way, the movie devolves into a fairly banal, straight-forward action shoot-em-up. Its as if the writer felt fairly confident that his audience wouldn’t quite notice that the story would lead nowhere. The more and more that is revealed about the mystery at the center of American Ultra, the less and less interesting the movie becomes. The comedic vibe of the first half is all but abandoned in lieu of explosions, chases and shock-value bits of violence.
Will stoners love it? Yep. Will some folks hate it? You betcha. Most of us though, will feel stuck in the middle, knowing that while American Ultra wasn’t horrible, that it seems like it should have been a lot better.
Genre: Action, Comedy
Run Time: 1 hours, 35 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X)
Opens locally on Friday, Aug 21, 2015 (check for show times).