The stoner comedy is usually a surefire bet for a modicum of entertainment: think Pineapple Express, or Cheech and Chong. Action films also so, notably those that fall into the Jason Bourne-esque type, featuring spectacular acts of ass-kickery. So why not throw them both together? That’s something that must work…right? Well, the answer is…kinda.
Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner who spends his days working in a convenience store and his nights with his equally high girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). While content, Mike has aspirations to leave the podunk little town in which they live, but is subject to panic attacks every time he tries to leave.
His latest attempt, to take Phoebe to Hawaii, prompts not only an attack but worries the CIA as to how close he came to leaving. Their surveillance is due to the fact that Mike is an “asset,” a specially trained, lethal operative, rendered inactive and unaware of his true abilities after conditioning in the “ULTRA” program. A decision is made to terminate Mike rather than risk him breaking loose. A former head of his program, Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), pays him a visit to reactivate him and ensure he has a fighting chance at survival.
It’s a premise that offers much promise, both for comedy and action. Indeed, the switching between the two, primarily manifested in the changing states and behavior of Eisenberg’s Hank, is the strongest element of the film. These moments of “activation” spark the film into life, in between, however, it is more underwhelming. It’s a simplistic plot that unfolds as you’d expect, but one that’s pretty clunky written, embodied by the film’s depiction of a secret project to eliminate a secret project, handled with the kind of quiet grace that you’d expect from Donald Trump entering a room to answer questions on illegal immigration.
Everything feels a little perfunctory, with little depth given to motivations, backstory, or relationships; this is particularly of note in regard to the CIA aspects of the film. There’s also a reliance on some edgy characters to try and imbue the film with some elements of danger or shock value (I’m looking at you John Leguizamo). The whole film seems to have a few good ideas, but the writers were too idle or not bothered enough to flesh them out. For instance, the group of assassins sent to eliminate Hank seem to be the result of a similar program, kindred spirits in a way, but this is just teased and never fleshed out. The most egregious aspect of this is a woefully underused Walton Goggins. The spiky relationships within the CIA staffers again are tied to a bigger plot device, but just come across as paper thin.
While I can appreciate a lean action jaunt, the film needed some fleshing out. What we’re left with is something that is only sporadically entertaining. For Eisenberg, American Ultra is the perfect vehicle for the neurotic, timid character he has perfected. As mentioned earlier, his switch between this and the instinctive, trained killer provide some of the more entertaining moments of the film. Kristen Stewart puts in a rather engaging performance and a twist in her tale sets up a sub-plot that makes the film not just about Mike trying to save his life but his relationship too. Supporting characters such as Britton, Grace, and Hale do their best with characters that are lacking better material and a stronger narrative.
THE PACKAGEThe film looks pretty murky at times, from the (intentionally) dreary interiors to the dark exteriors. Detail is good; no artifacts are present, suggesting a good transfer, but the film overall is visually uninspired.
Special features include a commentary with director Nima Nourizadeh and featurette Activating American Ultra runs for over 40 minutes and is a very in-depth look at the production of the film. Assassinating on a Budget is a clip reel showing off Mike’s killings during the film and a short gag reel is also included.
THE BOTTOM LINEAmerican Ultra hangs too much on it’s initial concept and fails to flesh it out to provide anything truly of substance. Eisenberg and Stewart are a great pairing and some of the action and comedy are solid but some poor writing fails to string together these successful moments. Sporadically entertaining.
American Ultra is available on Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from November 24th.