Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
I couldn’t quite understand what American Ultra wanted to be. Was it trying to be a stoner comedy? Was it trying to be a comedic action film about a stoner? Was it trying to be a some kind of thriller? The movie had trouble figuring that out. It seemed to wobble between the choices. What it ended up being was an uneven film. And that’s unfortunate because given the concept and cast it had potential.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell-a small town stoner with a dead-end job at a convenience store. He’s living with Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) who is his very loyal girlfriend. One day a woman comes into his store and says series of unusual words and phrases. Mike’s confusion results in the leaving in frustration. Shortly afterwards Mike sees two guys doing something to his car. When he approaches them not only does he disarm them but he easily kills them. Turns out Mike was part of a government program to make the ultimate secret agent and she was trying to activate him.
When the action starts the drug jokes begin. Mike’s use is played for laughs at times. At others he’s framed more as a slacker with the pot framed as an afterthought. And weaving its way through both is a plot about the former subjects of the ultra program which created Jesse Eisenberg being eliminated by Topher Grace and his group of super agents.
The core of the premise is kind of a light version of the Manchurian Candidate without all the dark undertones. Unfortunately, it never quite makes it there or anywhere else. So what is it then? Action movie? Stoner comedy? A thriller? It ends up being a mix of all three and it produces an uneven film.
It’s not an unwatchable movie but as I said it is uneven. If the writer (Max Landis) figured out what it wanted to be and stuck with it, it could’ve really blossomed. The story is a creative reuse of a concept that has been used before. Multiple shows and even a few movies have recycled the concept in one way or another. Sometimes it’s even been used for laughs.
The action scenes have a very John Wick vibe. Gun play is combined with use of objects from the environment. In this case it is a teddy bear or some frozen meat or a dustpan or whatever happens to be nearby. John Wick used a pencil. Mike Howell uses a spoon from a soup cup. That beats Wick using a pencil.
The problem here is in between the dialogue and the action there are moments where not much really happens. I wouldn’t necessarily call them establishing shots, but the camera just lingers a little too long before anything starts or after something finishes. This film could have been improved by cutting straight to the action.
I know the character of Mike is essentially supposed to be a blank slate because of the plot but there’s little in the way of what made up the illusion given to him. We don’t know too much about what he thinks he is beyond being a stoner. We’re just not given much of anything.
The character of Phoebe is mostly just the token girlfriend. Being the token whatever is not always a negative. Sometimes that character exists simply to move along the main character but here she is presented as a central character. She’s not developed beyond loving him and willing to do anything for him.
I liked Topher Grace as Adrian Yates. Yates is not so much villainous as just cold and callous. And a bit of a dick.
The movie isn’t without its flaws. And it probably could’ve done better with a few fixes. The ending certainly suggests a desire for more films but unfortunately this movie just didn’t make the cut.
American Ultra isn’t a bad movie but it’s not a great movie either. It had moments of near greatness but had difficulty completely getting off the ground. It still managed to be an enjoyable enough watch. You may not go back to it for repeat viewings, but you won’t feel like you wasted your time if you see it only once.