Despite its marketing campaign, American Ultra is not a stoner film. Instead, the characters and ideas within the film appear to be more half-baked than anything else. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, your average under-achieving stoner, who spends his days getting high, working at a convenience store, and talking about a comic series he would like to write but never does. He lives with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), and while the two have decent on-screen chemistry, the fact that she is so interested in him is baffling to the audience until they are well into the film.
The premise is that Mike is a sleeper-agent for the US government but doesn’t know it, and when CIA officials decide to terminate the ‘ULTRA’ program he is part of, he must run around a small town with his girlfriend trying to survive with little more than instinct and whatever makeshift weapons he can cobble together. While this premise promises a slick, unlikely hero action-thriller, instead it just slogs along, regurgitating things that have been done better in previous films and adding new material to this Bourne-style premise, but still never seems to hit the mark.
As the film starts, American Ultra establishes itself as part of a long tradition of lazy writing that often pervades bad movies. In rapid-fire succession, Ultra incorporates some of the worst impulses of bad screenwriters. The film is told in the form of a pointless frame narrative, immediately diving into an exposition dump in which Eisenberg explains his character’s backstory, motivations, and relationship with Stewart. He’s planning on proposing in Hawaii, but they miss the flight thanks to one of Mike’s anxiety attacks. On the drive home, he apologizes and explains that he thought he could overcome the anxiety attacks. This is the first of many times that characters feel the need to explain what’s happening on-screen directly to the audience, undercutting any effective moments in the film by assuming that we’re having trouble understanding the remarkably straight-forward story. This is all coupled with how insane all the characters act, but the movie takes itself too seriously for these actions to seem comedic.
While there is a lot to be critical of, there are a few small things to like here . The auxiliary cast is full of actors I enjoy–Tony Hale and Walton Goggins in particular–some of whom give decent performances or ham it up to the point of making this film almost entertaining. A few of the jokes in the film do hit, but this seems more due to Eisenberg’s acting chops than anything else. The one thing I did genuinely like about American Ultra is the cinematography. Though the action scenes are fairly boring, this movie is actually quite pretty in parts, and shows that at least a few people working on this film were determined to make it a good one.
Rating: 1.5 out of 5