American Ultra Review
A HALF-BAKED MASHUP
The stoner comedy genre has had a long line of famous movies, including Dazed & Confused, Half-Baked, Friday, and any Cheech & Chong movie. There is also a long line of action spy movies like the James Bond films, The Bourne series, and the Mission Impossible movies. Both genres have endeared over the years, developing new entries and new iterations of their cinematic staples. The real question is…what if someone was to blend these two genres together in a movie? The answer is the stoner action film American Ultra. Does stone comedy and spy action go hand-in-hand in this feature or is this just a bad failed experiment?
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a stoner pothead who has a nervous twitch / fear about him, has made a home with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in a small rural town in West Virginia, filling his days as employee at a local convenience store. At Langley’s CIA headquarters, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has ordered the extermination of specialized sleeper agents, with Mike as a top priority. With aided from concerned program handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), Mike is intentionally activated, gaining the ability to protect himself from a onslaught assassination attempts that are carried out by armed and lethal individuals, including the insane person codenamed “Laugher” (Walton Goggins). Transformed into a deadly weapon, but still unsure of new reality, Mike combats his enemies, with Phoebe by his side, forcing Yates to escalate the situation and locks the town in an attempt to draw Mike out.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
I remember seeing this trailer for this movie in theaters (I think it was when I saw Magic Mike XXL) and, while it wasn’t a movie I was uber excited to see, I kind was interested in seeing how this weird mash up of a movie would play out (plus the trailer used the song “Hey Mama” and you can’t go wrong with that). This experimental project is directed by Project X’s director Nima Nourizadeh and is written by Chronicle’s writer Max Landis. While both Nourizadeh and Landis probably had the right idea on paper, the end result is a half baked movie that doesn’t rise to its heightened expectations (if there was any).
The big staple (or allure) of American Ultra is its strange mixture of its feature premise, blending stoner comedy aspect with spy action thrills. While I do applauded Nourizadeh for trying to experiment with this new formula, it doesn’t have fluent and smooth collision of the two genres. Sure, the kind of stoner comedy works for some parts just as the over-the-top action feels like a film adaptation of recent graphic novel movie; similar in fashion to Kingsman or Kick Ass. Yet, when these two concepts clash in American Ultra, the result is a mixed bag that feels unevenly clunky and more of a forced “splat!” against the wall than an innovated and cohesive marriage.
For the most part, Landis’s writing for the movie is bland with stereotypical action dialogue and comedy stoner lines that are either only half-funny or not funny at all. American Ultra’s action scenes are….adequate. There’s a couple of interesting scenes that play out, but its most generic with fast paced action and blood splattering.
Landis’s writing also doesn’t really give meaty roles to its two main leads, but American Ultra isn’t really a character piece, thus the characters of Mike and Phoebe come alive through the performance portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. Eisenberg, most famous for playing Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network, handles Mike somewhat well with enough nervous twitches and laidback attitude, but it kind of gets boring (and little annoying) after awhile. Stewart, former Twilight star, fares a little bit better as Phoebe (at least she doesn’t become as annoying as Eisenberg’s Mike). In short, while I really don’t particular care for Eisenberg and Stewart, they do, at the very least, play their respective parts well enough for viewers to buy into these two stoner characters that are caught in a very crazy situation.
The supporting cast has some quality actors enlisted in this strange movie. Unfortunately, some do better than others. Topher Grace’s agent Yates has the snarky attitude to make him the generic weasel of a bad guy, which will surely make a lot of viewers cringe with each dialogue line spoken by Grace. Connie Britton has the right gumption for her character of agent Lasseter, but just seems odd in the movie (like she doesn’t fit properly in American Ultra). John Leguizamo does a good job as Mike’s drug dealer friend Rose, even though its small caricature role. In a side story, actor Tony Hale plays small role as Agent Douglas, a CIA agent whose allegiance is torn between Yates and Lasseter. Of all the supporting cast, who really steals the spotlight is Justified star Walton Goggins as Yates’s demented and psychotic assassin “Laugher”.
Lastly, the movie end credits scene is actually worth watching, depicting Mike’s comic book creation, Apollo Ape, in a series of snippet on-screen adventures. It’s kind of cool sequence and that’s pretty sad to say that I’m more interested in ending credits to American Ultra rather than the American Ultra itself.
From the get go, American Ultra wants to be something that it’s not. This failed mash up that’s part stoner comedy and part lethal spy action adventure doesn’t work correctly. There are a couple of good things going for the movie, but not enough to outweigh the bad. Personally, I knew that the movie was going to play out like it did, but (in general) I wasn’t impressed with the movie, cultivating in a 96 minute movie that’s poorly conceived, not funny, and downright uneven. Perhaps Stoners / potheads might give this movie a chance or those who like dark comedies, but (for everyone else) I really don’t recommend this movie for viewing, unless you really, really want to see this experimental mash up of feature for yourself.