Remember “Project X”? No, not the Matthew Broderick film with the crazy monkeys. The hyperactive, Red Bull-fueled party movie from a couple of years ago that looked like it was shot by the Roadrunner on steroids. That style, as effective as it was in capturing the world’s most out-of-control rager ever, doesn’t work for everything. Someone should have told that to director Nima Nourizadeh, whose stoner action-comedy “American Ultra” could have used a more assured approach to match the confident portrayals of its stars, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart.
“American Ultra” is basically “The Bourne Identity” if Jason Bourne was a total pothead, but the schizophrenic screenplay by Max Landis (“Chronicle”) can’t decide if it wants to make you laugh or cringe at the bloodshed. Eisenberg and Stewart, who found terrific chemistry in “Adventureland” and have it once again here, play stoner duo Mike Powell and Phoebe Larson. Like any high-as-a-kite pair their lives are a hodge podge of snacks, weed, disappointments, more weed, work, snacks, weed, laziness, weed….well, you get the picture. They’ve been together for a while; stuck in the same lousy town by the panic attacks that strike him anytime he tries to leave. She’s clearly the rock of that relationship while Mike is a well-meaning fool, bumbling through life except when stopping to draw characters for the comic book he can’t get motivated enough to create.
While the opening moments are pretty low-key, taking a tone quite similar to “Adventureland” in some respects, all of that is thrown out the window when Mike is suddenly “activated” by the CIA handler (Connie Britton) he didn’t know he had. Moments later he’s cutting down armed goons with a spoon, and fighting of swarms of enemies with fighting skills that would make Jason Statham jealous. Turns out he’s actually a sleeper agent with some serious butt-kicking mojo. Giving this guy a cup of Ramen noodles is like handing him a Cruise missile. But that’s too dangerous of an asset to be out there in the field, so an odious government suit (Topher Grace) gathers the troops to terminate Mike once and for all.
Bullets fly, blood is spilled, and there are surprisingly few laughs to be found as the grisly body count escalates. This is one of those movies where the violence is excessive for no apparent reason, but Landis’ script expects us to take it seriously despite the utter lack of consequences. At the same time the film tries hard to convince us that maybe we should chill out and smoke a bowl or something. Walton Goggins plays a wildly over-the-top psycho named Laugher because…well, he laughs a lot. Grace, who is way too good at playing characters we love to hate, can’t do much with his reprehensible government stooge. The character is way too ugly, which is sadly the same that can be said about the film’s idea of humor.
Fortunately, Eisenberg and Stewart maintain some familiar sweetness in their pairing, and the relationship between Mike and Phoebe takes some interesting twists. Capturing some of the same romantic zaniness and zeal of “True Romance”, their love feels real, troubled, and totally off-the-wall. The quiet moments, which are admittedly few, feel raw and lived-in. They too frequently give way to Nourizadeh’s needlessly stylish flourishes that might have worked during his music video career, but don’t hold any weight in this particular film, perhaps because “American Ultra” is unsure of what it wants to be. Clearly it doesn’t want to be ‘Bourne’, but it’s not quite “Pineapple Express”, either. Ultimately, “American Ultra” isn’t potent enough to get high on, but it may leave you with a case of the munchies.