Six years after their onscreen summer fling in the coming of age dramedy, “Adventureland,” actors Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are back, this time dodging lethal assassins in “American Ultra,” a stoner action-comedy costarring Topher Grace, Connie Britton and Walter Goggins.
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) from a script by Max Landis (“Chronicle”), this smoked out genre mash-up is an inconsistent mixture of indie rom-com and spy action flick that has fleeting pleasures, but will likely leave moviegoers in search of a better buzz. With stylized direction from the sophomore helmer, imaginatively choreographed action sequences nicely captured by cinematographer Michael Bonvillain (“Cloverfield”), and a first-rate cast to steer the chaos, the flaws of “American Ultra” lie not with the filmmaking, but Max Landis’ tonally unstable script. Still, Eisenberg and Stewart shine as the perpetually stoned lovers, and there are worse ways to spend your summer than in the company of these bonged out bohemians entangled in a deadly spy plot.
In the film, Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a shiftless stoner who, along with girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), lives in the fictional town of Liman, West Virginia. When the panic-prone Mike isn’t in custody for weed possession, he spends his days clerking at a local convenient store, writing a superhero graphic novel called “Apollo Ape” and planning the perfect proposal to Phoebe.
However, as the CIA’s surveillance on Mike makes clear, he isn’t your average pothead. Five years prior, Mike was placed in a government experiment called Wise Man that trained him and likeminded offenders to become lethal assassins. When the program, run by Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), was deemed a failure, the CIA erased the subjects’ memories and sent them back into society. Now, Lasetter’s agency rival (Topher Grace) has launched a new program called Tough Guy aimed at besting Lasseter’s efforts, and his first order of business is using his trainees to wipe out any trace of the former program, beginning with Mike.
Guilty over the doomed fate of her former subject, Lasseter goes rogue and activates Mike’s skills before the Tough Guys can get to him. Suddenly, Mike transforms from a clueless incompetent to a superhuman killing machine capable of wasting bad guys with little more than a spoon and a ramen cup. As the sleeper agent and his beleaguered girlfriend evade operatives, they jump from safe house to safe house, and action sequence to action sequence, blazing guns and ganja along the way.
Although screenwriter Max Landis mines some laughs from the admittedly funny premise of a paranoid stoner who can’t wrap his head around how he acquired his deadly skills, the setup eventually wears thin, leaving us with a lot of crazy action scenes but little investment in their outcome. Much like another spy comedy from this year, “Kingsmen,” Landis’ script agreeably sends up the genre’s conventions, but where that film felt tonally on-point, “Ultra” never quite hits the sweet spot. But for the action junkies, director Nima Nourizadeh gives audiences plenty to marvel over, including a shootout in a drug dealer’s (John Leguizamo) blacklit basement, a parking lot showdown that brings the fireworks in more ways than one, and a Walmart-set climax that makes inspired use of the store’s tool section.
As the stoner-cum-assassin protagonist, Jesse Eisenberg, normally cast in prickly intellectual roles, plays delightfully against type. The script relies too heavily on his character’s ineptness, what with his constant weed arrests and inability to even cook an omelet, but viewers will enjoy seeing Eisenberg use his fists instead of his brains to settle differences for a change. Also showing off some grade A asskicking skills is Kristen Stewart as Eisenberg’s red-eyed girlfriend with a secret past. Much of her work here involves reacting to Eisenberg’s aloofness, but they make a pleasantly offbeat couple. The supporting players aren’t given many opportunities to stand out, but John Leguizamo and Walter Goggins make the most of their screen time as Eisenberg’s thugged out drug dealer and the Tough Guy’s head goon.
Considering the continued success of “Straight Outta Compton” and “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” box office prospects for this genre hybrid are as limited as Eisenberg’s character’s short-term memory.
By Lucas Mirabella
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.
Running Time: 96 minutes