Review: American Ultra Is A Fun Premise Muddled With Poor Execution
Title: American Ultra
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenwriter: Max Landis
Principal Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, and Walton Goggins
Summary: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.
I’ve never been a huge fan of what I sometimes call “stoner cinema”. I’m more keen on dark humor than self awareness or stupidity which is why movies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness never really appealed to me. I wasn’t sure what American Ultra was going to be because I went out of my way to try and stay away from trailers. All I knew was based on the poster and the few bits of information I heard through the grapevine. I wasn’t sure what to expect or if there was going to be anything I really found funny. I like the cast, though, and I try to give most movies a chance.
American Ultra has an interesting premise and great cast but its subpar action sequences drag down the rest of the production.
This is a very frustrating review to write because there are things I liked about American Ultra but it ultimately didn’t work. Our lead, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) is a convenience store clerk who likes to get stoned with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and not much else. These two have made a good pair in Adventureland but that was a drama so I was a little worried about how funny the two of them could be. Their chemistry and one-liners are the parts of the movie that I enjoyed the most as their small town West Virginia life begins to fall apart around them. Stewart is the stand out for the comedy bits and I’d like to see her in more roles like this one.
The movie is like watching two movies get mashed together but the pieces don’t quite fit. The first is the stoner comedy with Mike and Phoebe and the other is a CIA spy thriller that deals with brainwashed super soldiers. Once they meet in the middle it works but only for about half the movie. The script by Max Landis is very clever and I liked it, but novice director Nima Nourizadeh, with only Project X to his name, can’t do anything with it. The idea seems to be to counter the humor with over the top gore but the gore isn’t really that interesting. The first fight where two people are killed with a spoon and a cup of noodles is funny but they don’t evolve much beyond that. They aren’t staged very well and there isn’t anything so over the top that it adds to the comedy. It’s really just subpar.
There is also the fact that the CIA thriller is also over the top yet somehow manages to remain just behind the parody line that would make it funny. It was like they set out to make a mockery of spy thrillers and instead missed the things that make spy thrillers fun, and instead just turned it all up to eleven and said “that’s good enough”. You have to make a good project before you can parody it really well and the CIA portions of the movie were, ironically, the parts that seemed to drag the pacing down. There were long moments where nothing happens and, much like Hitman: Agent 47 also opening this week, the momentum would get going and then grind to a halt.
American Ultra is a fun idea that fails in execution. I have to wonder if a more seasoned director could have taken Landis’ script and really turned it into something special, but the lackluster action sequences shoot the production in the foot. It makes something that should have been unique incredibly forgettable.