By Jack Ryan, For The Miami Student
Watching “American Ultra” is like watching a friend brutally mess up the delivery of a joke that you both know. You want to help them, but even if you fixed their mistakes, the moment has passed and the potential for humor has faded.
“American Ultra” is the story of deadbeat stoner, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who spends his time either manning a convenient store or smoking with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). After a strange series of events, we discover Mike is a sleeper agent — inexplicably possessing inhuman reflexes and abilities that the government secretly taught him — and he has to defend himself, his girlfriend and his town from destruction at the hands of a corrupt government official.
I won’t go any further with the plot, because there really isn’t anywhere else to go. “American Ultra” plays it safe, repeating scenarios and enemies, and feels more like a repetitive video game than an actual movie. The boring storyline is mostly to be blamed on the opening minutes, as all the tension surrounding Mike’s life is immediately stripped away. The intro features him, bloodied and bruised, in an interrogation room after most of the events of the film, revealing that despite explosions and gunshots, he will inevitably survive the night.
The central, thematic joke of “American Ultra” is supposed to be a hilarious hybrid between two contrasting genres: the dropout stoner comedy and the espionage action thriller. This is a great concept in and of itself with occasional successes (i.e. Mike moronically turning around when a pursuing psychopath yells, “Wait!”), but the film is directed so poorly that it never manages to complete the fusion, and feels forced.
This combination of clichés would’ve been easier to execute if director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) had been given anything to work with in terms of a script, but the screenwriting in “American Ultra” is abysmal. Screenwriter Max Landis doesn’t just paint shallow characters, but worse: characters with superficial depth. The dialogue is absolute trash as well. All attempts to imitate and mock the classic spy one-liners come off as unnecessary or boring, and for a movie that’s categorized as a comedy, not a single line nor exchange made me laugh.
“American Ultra” contains a star-studded cast that should have stayed home. Eisenberg and Stewart are equally bland, unbelievable, and have so little chemistry it’s hard to imagine them as neighbors, let alone star-crossed lovers. Topher Grace plays a CIA suit named Yates, who quickly becomes a human temper-tantrum. Connie Britton plays Yates’ foil, Lasseter, a motherly agent trying to protect Mike from the corrupt system.
Britton manages to deliver a decent performance, but at times seems a bit bored. In fact, the best performance is given by none other than Tony Hale (best known as Buster in “Arrested Development”) who plays Petey, a torn CIA agent trapped between his loyalties to Lasseter and Yates.
Chances are, if you’re not going to “American Ultra” for the drug humor, you’re going for the action and, due to poor editing and overuse of shaky-cam, the gunfights and brawls don’t feel high quality enough for a film with a $12 million budget. Thanks to a montage of ‘evidence photographs’ shown in the first five minutes, we also have a strong idea of how these fights will end long before they begin, stripping them of all possible spontaneity and fun.
In terms of endings, the film doesn’t have a major catharsis or conclusion that teaches the audience anything about the characters. It just sort of ends, leaving us with another unfinished epilogue that only adds to the unanswered questions. Ultimately, “American Ultra” is just a disappointing, half-baked film with a major identity crisis, and it’s sad to watch the all-star cast struggle their way through this painful picture.