American Ultra (2015) / Comedy-Action
MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Running Time: 95 min.
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenplay: Max Landis
Review published August 22, 2015
Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour, Rio 2) stars as Mike Howell, a stoner by day, all day, who works at a sparsely trafficked convenience store by night in forgotten-town Liman, West Virginia, where his weed smoking continues to the break of dawn, when he's reunited with his faithful live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart, The Clouds of Sils Maria). However, turns out that Mike is some sort of unwitting sleeper cell, and in quite a bit of danger when his CIA cohorts decide to put him to bed, something that becomes clear when he's visited by a sympathetic agent named Victoria Lasseter (Britton, This is Where I Leave You) to try to trigger him back to action, followed by a parking lot altercation in which he unleashes the kind of hellacious badassery upon his assailants that only years of intense physical training and finely honed instincts can provide.
American Ultra contains one of my least favorite narrative devices by starting with a scene we will later see at the end. What this means for us as viewers is that at no time when they are in danger will the characters we see in this scene expire, no matter how much in harm's way they get along the way. This greatly reduces any tension we might feel, without adequate comedy to make up for the lessening of intensity in the action scenes this causes. It's the stoner comedy equivalent of a buzz-kill, waiting nearly the entire length of the movie to finally arrive at the spot we all know it's going to, checking boxes of the various items we see in the opening montage until we get caught up.
Though it's a comedy featuring stoners, most of the jokes and action have little to do with pot, so we're at least spared a good deal of the usual gags we often get about stoners -- slacking, paranoia, trip-outs, and munchies. This allows us to take its main characters as more than conduits for a bunch of weed gags and appreciate them in their predicament as a couple, and in the romantic interplay between the two lead performers, the best moments lie. Though all of the CIA stuff is bunk, and largely unfunny, surprising pathos is given to Mike and Phoebe because of their rounded performances, which would have made us care about their plights if not for the fact that, for the bulk of the film, we know they'll be OK until the ending, because of that god-awful flash forward at the beginning of the story.
Though we like the leads, and a bit of the chutzpah that comes in to play in a few of the very bloody fight scenes, there's not much more that rises above average in the rest of the film, which feels very familiar with its Bourne Identity plot line, directed by Doug Liman, who directed the first Bourne, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Smith, two films American Ultra is reminiscent of. Scenes featuring Topher Grace (Interstellar) as an ambitious CIA desk jockey-turned-leader are mostly without good jokes, while too much time is spent on quirky-but-not funny comic side characters such as Tony Hale (The Heat) as a real desk jockey who is strong-armed into siding with Topher, and Walton Goggins (Machete Kills) as a goon spook whose only character trait given is that he maniacally laughs while he's doing the CIA dirty work in the field.
American Ultra has its moments, but not enough of them are strung together to keep the fun momentum going for very long, continuously executing like its slacker protagonists -- with bursts of inspired and focused energy followed by lengthy segments of slack, unfocused black comedy. Perhaps a shoring up of the romantic relationship would have worked better when you have thespians as solid as Eisenberg and Stewart, and a trimming down of the seemingly extraneous marijuana references and CIA headquarters shenanigans, and we'd have a much more interesting and consistent movie. The action is good, though familiar, not only with its Bourne homage, but also a gory climax at a supermarket that feels all too much like a similar bloody home improvement store climax found in The Equalizer. Close, but to be blunt, it's no cannabis cigar.
©2015 Vince Leo