UK Release Date: 4th September 2015
Runtime: 96 minutes
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins
Synopsis: A stoner finds himself being pursued by the security services when he is activated as a sleeper agent and discovers a murderous set of skills.
It’s rare that a film is predominantly sold on the prowess of its writer. However, in the case of American Ultra, it was the name of Chronicle scribe Max Landis (who also has a new Frankenstein adaptation on the way) that was promoted far more heavily than that of director Nima Nourizadeh, whose only previous credit is the dire party comedy Project X. Unfortunately, American Ultra has more in common with the director’s previous disaster than the writer’s prior successes.
Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a directionless stoner, working a miserable job in a late night convenience store and dating Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). A bizarre visit to his store by CIA agent Lasseter (Connie Britton) mystifies him and he only becomes more confused when he violently dispatches two hoodlums fiddling with his car. It transpires that Mike is a sleeper agent and has been activated, which puts Lasseter’s rival agent, Yates (Topher Grace) on his case.
Like many genre hybrids, American Ultra finds itself stuck in an uncomfortable limbo between its two genres. It seems like there’s a tug of war going on between the action elements of the story and the aspects of the film that lean towards Seth Rogen-esque stoner comedy. The best action-comedy hybrids, like Hot Fuzz and Kick-Ass, blend their two genres together in order for each to strengthen the other. That is not the case in American Ultra, which effectively has its twin genres take turns, seldom existing simultaneously.
| "Something very weird is happening to me. I keep killing people. There’s a chance I may be a robot."
Perhaps surprisingly given the slant of its premise, American Ultra works considerably better as an action movie than it does as a comedy. The majority of the jokes, excepting the ones that have been endlessly repeated across the marketing campaign, fail to land, leaving the film conspicuously lacking in real levity. Conversely, the action scenes are often inventive and come with an impressively nasty lashing of gore.
It’s clear that Nima Nourizadeh had great faith in his action sequences. They are often extended far beyond the necessary length and, in between, the film often seems bored of its own downtime. Thankfully, Eisenberg and Stewart have oodles of chemistry in the lead roles, reteaming with each other after 2009 charmer Adventureland. Given their chemistry, which is one of the films few plus points, it’s remarkable that they are separated for much of the running time, sapping American Ultra of life.
The supporting cast are given very little to do and, with that limited screen time in mind, simply turn everything up to eleven. Topher Grace is fleetingly amusing as a sweary, power mad CIA man, but Connie Britton makes very little impact in a comparatively straight role. Meanwhile, John Leguizamo wanders in with a role so irritating that it feels hackneyed even in the well-worn stoner comedy setting of the movie.
| "They had guns and knives and they were being total dicks."
It seems that a writer as prolific as Max Landis (he says he has written 75 screenplays in the space of around a decade) is bound to have a few duds in his back pocket. Despite its novel premise and engaging central performers, American Ultra feels like it’s going through a bit of an identity crisis. It’s about two or three drafts away from a proper film. Back to the drawing board, Max.
Pop or Poop?
Unsure of itself and failing to serve the core audiences of either of its two genres, American Ultra falls short on all fronts, despite plenty of initial promise on paper.
Eisenberg and Stewart are game and some of the action works, but there’s no cohesion to the hyperactive story.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.