In the realm of stoner action comedies, American Ultra isn’t too bad. But what a weird genre to begin with, right? It seems sort of counter intuitive to have an action movie for stoners. Usually when you’re stoned, the last thing you want is action. You just want to laugh while you’re eating your pizza. But maybe that’s what’s supposed to be funny about it – you’re stoned, and suddenly you have to be all focused and sharp-witted and dexterous. I mean, you’d have to subconciously be a highly trained CIA agent to pull anything like that off.
And that brings us to the plot of American Ultra. Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, pretty much your basic under-achieving stoner who runs a little super market in rural Virginia. He has a pretty but equally unaccomplished girlfriend named Phoebe (Kriten Stewart) who loves him despite his panic attacks and general slacker qualities. But one night, a couple guys are messing with his car in the parking lot of his work. When Mike interrupts them, they attack him with gun and knife. Suddenly something clicks in Mike’s head, and seconds later he has killed both of these guys – one of them with a spoon.
And American Ultra is off to a great start. These are the kind of moments where the film is at it’s best. The idea of this clueless stoner actually being a highly trained killer – without him even knowing it – plays out pretty well. And Eisenberg sells it admirably. He has a kind of vulnerability that makes us believe he’s not very capable. But then he snaps into killer mode and he sells that, too.
Unfortunately, his sense of confusion and shock after he’s killed someone loses most of its’ charm after a while. That’s only funny for so long. And, as with other stoner action comedies, like Pineapple Express, there is a bit of trouble trying to handle stoner humor with the kind of action violence portrayed. American Ultra is a little easier on the violence, but it’s still a little jarring to go from some joke about how sensitive and awkward Mike is, to seeing a guy’s hand impaled with a screwdriver.
There is a lot of great people in this film. Kristin Stewart is actually decent here, though it’s hard to buy her character about half way through the film, and you’ll know exactly what I mean if you see it. Topher Grace is fine here as the up-and-coming CIA agent that tries to take out Mike, but because of the story, his character ends up being pretty over the top and unrealistic. This is a problem because the film chooses to be absurd comedy at times, then tries to ground certain things in some kind of reality. Writer Max Landis (Chronicle) just doesn’t meld these tones well. The directing by the guy who did Project X seems fine, but not a stand out.
Connie Britton plays the agent that basically created Mike and tries to help him, John Leguizamo is Rose, Mike’s friend and drug dealer. He’s hilarious as a broad stroke character who does enough drugs to make him paranoid and slightly bonkers. Other notable actors are Walton Goggins, Bull Pullman and Tony Hale.
Despite all the tonal complications here, American Ultra is still pretty funny. I can’t tell you to go spend your $ 12 to $ 15 on this, but if you have a theater that does cheaper matinees (do those even exist anymore?), then go for it. Or even if it was playing on a plane or streaming online, it might be worth checking out for some mild entertainment. About two and a half kittenhands.
~ Neil T. Weakley, your average movie goer, looking to catch up on a lot of movies.