Rolled into a joint made with the kief leftover from a dozen different movies, American Ultra is a natural underachiever. An early action scene, in which our protagonist average Joe brutally dispatches of two government goons through unconscious reflex, is a familiar one. So too are many of the events that follow, like when a military liaison explains to his CIA superior (Topher Grace, delightful) why their hit on a former asset has gone pear-shaped. “How is he still alive?” yells Grace’s pissy and psychotic company man. “Well, sir,” replies the Army brass, “he had a spoon.”
Deadpan statements shine like whites beneath the wide, spectral black light of American Ultra’s influences. It’s a paranoid pothead thriller (The Bourne Indica) that’s been hybridized with a sweetly simple relationship comedy. It’s also a violent action vehicle, a dopey stoner romp, and a Looney Tunes vision of surveillance state overreach. Half VHS box art collage, half math class daydream, the script for American Ultra comes from Max Landis, whose Chronicle benefitted from an impish take on the superhero template. His latest, as directed by Project X’s Nima Nourizadeh, is like watching a puerile charmer work their way through genre speed dating, with matches and clashes rotating through every five minutes.
Set in the sleepy pit stop of Liman (hint) West Virginia, American Ultra’s Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is the most innocuous-looking secret agent around. Too small to fill out his plaid button-up and too perma-fried to cook an egg, Mike wouldn’t last five seconds with Bond, Bourne, or Spy’s skillet-wielding Susan Cooper. Not that Mike cares, or knows about his training as the ultimate CIA assassin; oblivious to his past and happily shacked up with long-term partner in laziness Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), Mike’s made a comfortable nest for himself out of the seeds and stems of humble burnout living.
Projecting a more relaxed, but equally charming kind of chemistry that the pair had in the wonderful Adventureland, Eisenberg and Stewart are the ever-present eye in American Ultra’s eventual tempest of exposition, bullets, and explosions. Stricken by panic attacks anytime they leave the city limits, Mike’s constant awe at his girlfriend’s patience comes with the suspicion that he’s weighing her down. Maybe he’s just insecure, or maybe he’s too high to see that any girl willing to help you deal with a pair of dead bodies at 2 A.M. is a keeper.
In one toke, American Ultra pivots from a small town love story into a whacked out espionage riff. Grace’s villainous suit is out to cleanup any trace of a training program started by Connie Britton’s Lasseter, a fellow spook who recruited Mike before erasing his memory. It’s not long after Lasseter reactivates Mike that he and Phoebe are on the run, Liman is locked down, and American Ultra starts pulling in character actors and spy/stoner movie conventions by the bushel. (John Leguizamo, as Mike’s dealer, is ripping from Pineapple Express’s Red so thoroughly that naming him Rose seems an intentional shout-out).
More clever than smart at its best, more messy than frustrating at its worst, American Ultra is better at dryly mocking its reference material than recreating it. For as comically ridiculous as the story eventually gets (Britton screaming “Who’s the bitch now, $^%#er?!” while strangling a man with an electrical cord is why the movies were invented), the freshest bits in American Ultra are often the most sedate. Once removed from the fray, Mike’s nebbish personality will always battle his lethal instincts to an awkward standstill. Whether scrambling to lock a car door, or hashing out on the phone just how one is supposed to formalize their surrender, Eisenberg is in his element.
Between Britton and Stewart you’ve got two more interesting female characters than this usual playground finds room for, even as the latter’s assumed agency in the story is far more compelling to consider before a midpoint reveal that’s heavily foreshadowed. It’s one area where American Ultra wants to update the sources that inspired it, rather than just scrapbook them. Unfortunately, Nourizadeh is more skilled at setting up gonzo shootouts than making them register with impact, and Landis abandons any hint of subtext in order to do right by his characters in the end.
But we do like a good number of the characters in American Ultra by its conclusion, and maybe a movie where people are regularly murdered with cutlery and dustpans isn’t the one to expect any trenchant social commentary from. Occasional directorial flourishes from Nourizadeh, like a continuum of bullet-shattered mirrors, stand out as more than just a coat of neon paint on American Ultra’s rusty trappings. At least its heart stays in the right place. A running gag sees Mike trying to figure out the perfect time to propose to Phoebe, and just as the right moment continually eludes him, so too does the best version of American Ultra. But when the stars and competing impulses do align every once in a while, the blend makes for a special kind of high.
Inconsistent and unevenly packed as it might be, American Ultra sends you off enjoying a pleasantly mellow buzz.