American Ultra is one of those movies that can never quite decide what it wants to be. Sometimes it plays like a straightforward action flick. Other times it tries to be a stoner comedy. Then occasionally it goes into all-out satire mode. There’s no reason why American Ultra couldn’t be all of the above, but none of these elements ever really mesh together. There are parts here and there that function. Sitting through the film, though, you can’t help but wish you were watching Kick-Ass, Grindhouse, Wanted, or Kingsman instead.
Several years following Adventureland, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart reunite to play a couple stoners in love. Eisenberg is Mike, a paranoid slacker, and Stewart is Phoebe, the more levelheaded of the two. Mike turns out to be much more than your average burnout, though. When confronted by CIA agents sent to assassinate him, he takes them out like a natural born killer. Mike soon learns that he was part of a government experiment that took away his memories and left him with a very particular set of skills. Now the government wants to take Mike out because…well their reasons don’t really matter. It’s just an excuse for Mike and Phoebe to go on the run.
A fish out of water story like this all depends on how compelling our central character is. While Eisenberg is a very talented young actor, he’s sadly given little to work with here. Mike isn’t an especially funny, charming, interesting, charismatic, or even likable character. He’s just a bland, average loser. Maybe that’s supposed to be part of the joke, but imagine how much more fun a premise like this would be with Saul from Pineapple Express or Shaun from Shaun of the Dead as the lead. Mike is instantly forgettable so we don’t care about the mystery or danger surrounding him.
The rest of the cast is also highly gifted. Topher Grace is perfectly slimy as the man in change that wants Mike eliminated. Connie Britton and Tony Hale play a couple rogue agents that want to save Mike from the big bad government. They’re all wasted too, however, and that’s largely because they don’t know how to play their characters. Are they supposed to be taking this material seriously or are they supposed to be winking at the camera?
The one thing that does shine through this confused mess is the chemistry between Mike and Phoebe. You may not buy some of the twists regarding their relationship, but you do buy their emotional connection. Eisenberg and Stewart make for an endearing match and it’d be nice to see them paired together in more movies. Although the romance may work, the action is still stinted, the humor is still lacking, and the tone is all over the place.
Walking away from American Ultra, audiences might not be sure if what they just witnessed was good or bad. Sometimes that’s the sign of a truly great movie. In other cases, it’s a sign that the filmmakers just didn’t have a clear vision. In this case, it’s the latter.