American Ultra is a thoroughly unpleasant film, cruelly loud, unbearably obnoxious and convoluted to the point where it breeds indifference amongst its audience. It’s marketed as the romantic Pineapple Express of sorts, boasting the amiable and easily relatable chemistry of Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, but cacophonous action sequences and a downright stupid plot prevent any kind of humor or remnants of wit to seep through such a lackluster story. For once, a stoner film, and potentially its actors and crew, have gotten so taken by their chemical reinforcement that they forgot to say, create, or do anything funny or insightful.
We follow Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a chronic stoner living with his unbelievably patient girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). Mike smokes to get away from his sober self, where he falls prey to persistent panic attacks whenever he comes close to leaving his town, home, or general comfort zone. The two live together and share incredible romance whilst Mike works at a local convenient store.
Meanwhile, we focus on a nearby CIA office where Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) learns that her workplace rival, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), has taken over the “Ultra Program,” a secret project she once helmed to create agents that operated like normal people but were really just pawns of the CIA. When the project ostensibly flopped, she ordered the death of all the assets, including Mike Howell. Lasseter, however, discovers Mike is well, and winds up activating his senses, turning him into an unstoppable killing machine whenever he is in danger.
The first instance comes in the parking lot of the convenient store where he works. Two guys are attempting to break into Mike’s car, and as a result, Mike snaps and turns into a slick fighter with quickness that Bruce Lee would envy. From there on out, Mike is essentially not his own man anymore, but a robot of the CIA. When Yates orders Mike to be taken out, upon realizing his abilities, he kidnaps Phoebe, resulting in Mike truly showing everyone what he is made of as a human and a CIA-controlled puppet of sorts.
American Ultra features some incredibly brutal scenes of violence and, as somebody who can admire slickly directed and choreographed violence, the violence here is an assault on the senses. Punches and thuds land with headache-inducing noise, the brutality here is on the verge of being artless and for the sake of being brutal, and little about any of these scenes is particularly compelling. Somewhat like a superhero film, you feel no real danger for Mike being that he’s already programmed to be quicker than any of his opponents.
With all this emphasis on the brutal, writer Max Landis forgets to make any of this funny, despite a premise ripe for jokes. Perhaps this is a blessing, for Landis could’ve easily taken this film in the direction of bogus stoner jokes, but the lack of humor despite proven comedic talent such as Eisenberg and Grace seems almost criminal. However, to his credit, Landis does emphasize the relationship between Mike and Phoebe here, one built off mutual understanding of one another and unadulterated love. Scenes between the two are quite touching and romantic, and provide a pleasant, if momentary, relief and pause between all of the violent nonsense. It’s also worth noting that Topher Grace takes on the villain role for once. Grace, an actor I’ve long-defended for his ability to be goofy, serious, smug, believable, and charismatic, sometimes all in one film, does some strong, over-the-top comedy here, and, despite two solid leads, outshines everyone around him.
But at the end of it all, American Ultra suffers from the stoner mentality of “who cares, let’s do it,” resulting in a convoluted film that probably would’ve been better suited for an “intellectual” conversation with friends and some help than a ninety-six minute film. While this and Project X prove director Nima Nourizadeh can function in controlled chaos and romantic tendencies can indeed be strong amidst the senseless and inane, American Ultra can’t rise above its own reckless and terribly asinine ideas and wallows haplessly in its own bong exhaust.