This strange mash-up of ultraviolent spy thriller and laid-back stoner comedy barely gets by on the chemistry between Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
Running time: 95 minutes
By Jay Stone
One of the (few) things that make sense in American Ultra, a spy thriller set in the exciting world of zonked-out potheads, is that it takes place in the (made-up) small town of Liman, W. Va. This is probably a tribute to Doug Liman, who directed The Bourne Identity, a spy thriller with a similar theme: an ordinary guy suddenly discovers he has been trained to be an assassin by a darkly manipulative arm of the CIA.
In American Ultra, the spy is laid-back Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), who discovers pretty well in mid-spliff that he is the sort of creative killer who can dispatch his foes armed only with a spoon and his native cunning. It kind of freaks him out — Eisenberg is the go-to actor when the role calls for a jittery, watchful anxiety — especially since he can’t remember a thing about his secret past. He just wants to get stoned, and here he is taking on a goodly part of the American black-ops apparatus.
This set-up — Jason Bourne on tetrahydrocannabinol — makes for a watchable mess, a pastiche of stoner comedy, hyperviolent paranoia film, and character study of yet another middle-American slacker whose creative life is devoted to the fantasy world of superheroes. Mike is a clerk in a convenience store, but he also draws a comic about an astronaut monkey called Apollo Ape, aligning him with the Bel Powley character in Diary of a Teenage Girl and several other alienated young people in modern cinema whose foothold in the everyday world teeters on the slippery slope of a graphic imagination.
Apollo Ape forms a key connection between Mike and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), whom he calls with exciting plot developments in his monkey epic. Phoebe is a good listener, but under that, she is watchful in a different way: Stewart has a pouty, morose intensity that makes her an idea partner in psychedelic disconnection. “We were the perfect f—ed up couple,” Mike reminisces and indeed, as the actors showed in Adventureland, they do have a nice, unsettling chemistry.
Mike’s phone calls turn more urgent when he is confronted by two tough guy killers in the parking lot of the convenience store and, to his astonishment, kills them both.
It turns out that Mike is a sleeper agent, trained by Victoria (Connie Britton), a CIA executive with a plan for an army of confidential killers sprinkled around America. That program is now ended, however, and her ambitious boss Adrian (Topher Grace, pushing the limits of the buttoned-down homicidal bureaucrat) has decided that Mike must be killed for the program to remain secret.
This causes quite a bit of excitement in Liman, W.Va., what with all the government troops arriving by helicopter, killer drones being dispatched, and a group of former mental patients — headed by the truly bizarre Laugher (Walton Groggins) — hunting for Mike and Phoebe. All they have to defend themselves are the dubious protection of Rose (John Leguizamo) the local drug dealer, who at least has some guns, and Mike’s training in how to put all manner of kitchenware to lethal use. (The movie’s climax takes place in the aisles of a local supermarket, which run red with both blood and spilled canned goods.)
Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) shepherds this hyped-up narrative through several changes of tone, going from the laid-back confusions of the small-town underachiever to scenes of explosive and bloody combat in the twinkling of a joint. The screenplay by Max Landis squeezes everything together with the use of flashbacks that strain to explain the origins of the bizarre plot — killer stoners? Why not arm Apollo Ape and let him loose on the world? — during the brief periods when the film stops to catch its breath, or perhaps just to inhale some more smoke.
It barely holds together and it is entirely forgettable, but it’s just original enough to keep you wired for 95 minutes. The closing feint at a sequel is, one hopes, part of the hallucination.