American Ultra (2015)
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
American Ultra isn't a bad movie, but your opinion of it will depend on how much of the advertising you've seen for it, as this may well be the most poorly-marketed film I've witnessed since John Carter. The posters, the trailers, and everything else in this film's ad campaign have been selling it as The Bourne Identity meets Pineapple Express, a raunchy stoner action-comedy filled with 420 humor, guns blazing, and the people blazing the guns getting blazed themselves. I couldn't come up with a more inaccurate description of the film bearing the title American Ultra if I tried, as this is a movie that has far more in common, in both style and tone, with the dark, grungy alt-comedies of the '90s, films like Clerks, Dazed and Confused, Empire Records, Slacker, and Singles. That's not to say that this film is as good as any of the movies I just listed -- far from it -- but it's a far more accurate description of its actual content. It's a movie that feels out of place in 2015, a comedy that bears almost no resemblance to anything that's come out in the last five years but which would feel right at home in 1995.
Unfortunately, I don't really know how much better advertising could have saved this movie, because it suffers from many severe problems that really kept me from enjoying it. It meanders constantly, with its attempts to meld a '90s slacker film with a spy thriller never quite coming together, while the action scenes are piss-poor. Only the characters and the actors playing them kept me invested, and while they redeemed this film somewhat, they weren't enough to save it.
American Ultra is about Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a young man living in small-town West Virginia who spends his time chilling with his girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), working at a convenience store, and smoking pot. He's trapped in the town, and not just figuratively; he suffers constant panic attacks whenever he leaves for unfamiliar places. This is because, unbeknownst to him, he was a test subject in the Ultra Program, a CIA experiment led by Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) to create sleeper agents. Phoebe is actually his handler, while the panic attacks were instilled into him in order to keep him from running off. Now, agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has taken over the program in order to shut it down and wash the CIA's hands of it -- by killing all the test subjects. This causes Lasseter, who still believes in the program, to activate Mike so that he can fight off the black-ops team sent into town to eliminate him. As Mike's training suddenly rushes back to him and turns him into an instant badass, he starts understandably freaking out at the whole situation, as he and Phoebe run all over town to evade Yates' goon squad.
As I said earlier, this is only a comedy in the loosest sense of the word. It plays its premise completely straight, more for drama than comedy (the pot humor especially is virtually nil), and it's at its best when its focusing on the main characters. Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are both good actors (no, the Twilight films are not indicative of Stewart's talent, and this is more proof of that), and when this film is about Mike and Phoebe, they both shine. I fully bought them as a pair of young slackers that, even with their arguments, genuinely love one another, and Mike's shock at being thrust into such a crazy situation felt very real. When Mike learns that Phoebe, the love of his life, was in fact a government agent, both of their performances were heartbreaking. The rest of the cast didn't quite wow me, though. Connie Britton was passable, if unspectacular as Lasseter, but Topher Grace felt like he was in a much broader comedy, playing a villain who was more comic relief than menacing. The same was true of John Leguizamo as Mike's drug-dealer friend Rose, a stereotypical "white guy who listens to too much rap music" who felt like a poor man's version of James Franco's character in Pineapple Express.
The mixed bag of side characters is a symbol of the big problem that kept this film from working: a lack of sure footing as to what it wanted to be. The core of the story, and the parts that really worked for me, felt like one of those aforementioned '90s alt-comedies, but along the way, there are all too many divergences into mostly failed attempts at more colorful humor, which felt heavily out of place. Its identity was dysfunctional, pulling it in two opposite directions that, in the end, tore it apart. As someone who greatly enjoyed writer Max Landis' previous film Chronicle, this was definitely a big step down. However, I'm inclined to blame more of this film's dysfunction on director Nima Nourizadeh, the maker of the wretched Project X, especially since he's far more directly responsible for one of this film's other big problems: utterly woeful action scenes. The fights and shootouts here are nearly impossible to follow, the camera getting much too close to the action and constantly engaging in terrible shaky-cam, with only one scene late in the film (Mike battling foes inside a big-box store) really impressing or even engaging me in any way. I understand that Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are the farthest thing from action heroes that one can imagine, but other filmmakers have done far better jobs at concealing actors' stunt doubles.
Score: 2 out of 5
While the core of the film mostly worked, everything else was too disjointed for me to really enjoy. It's a very high 2 out of 5, but still, wait for cable or Redbox.