American Ultra pretends to be about drugs, but really it crackles to the rhythm of a drug all its own: hyper-violence.
Spoons are jammed into carotid arteries, bullets flick off of frying pans and into chests, and discount-store hammers crush human skulls in director Nima Nourizadeh's and writer Max Landis's alleged stoner comedy. Two potheads come in the form of meek-speaking, sleeper super-soldier Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and his earnest girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), but the bloody violence — not the laughs — is the nerve stem of this jarring flick.
Mike and Phoebe's faces reflect that violence. The duo start as greasy, albeit poreless, potheads in Liman, West Virginia (a nod to Bourne Identity director Doug Liman). But as their hellish day plays out, their faces absorb a plethora of punches and elbows, each one causing swells and lumps. By the end of the film, their faces look like skin stretched thin over a mound of applesauce.
Staring at Eisenberg's mashed face and Stewart's bloody teeth, you realize that Nourizadeh and Landis want to make a point. They want to shatter the idea of gentle stoner movies and satirize super-soldier flicks like the Bourne franchise with a skull-splitting dustpan to the frontal lobe. While there's plenty in American Ultra to like, those added ambitions often prove its undoing.
American Ultra is actually everything but a stoner comedy
For a movie that's being marketed as a stoner comedy, everyone except for John Leguizamo (as a jack of all shady trades named Rose) plays this material with a straight face. That's not a bad thing. Eisenberg's spineless and perpetually apologetic Mike is a 135-pound anchor for his girlfriend, Phoebe. He works a night shift at a convenience store, content with slacking his way to death.
Mike isn't all that likable. Even when his super-soldier skills are awakened, there's a sulky spirit about him that makes you not mind seeing him get hit in the face. Fortunately, Eisenberg is the Kobe Bryant of actors who make you want to inflict violence upon them, always finding exactly the right way to be just a little too grating. (This is a compliment.)
The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart carries the film. He fucks up. She deals with it, but not before knitting brows and biting her lip. Their wake-and-bake relationship doesn't make much sense. You don't fully understand why she would put with up him starting a small kitchen fire as he attempts to cook an omelet while stoned, or a host of other disappointments, but Stewart and Eisenberg convince you to try. They do it so well, in fact, that you wish this movie gave up on comedy and ran with its romance.
Mike and Phoebe find themselves at the center of a huge government plot. For some reason (revealing this would be a major spoiler, so more on this in a bit) the government wants to kill him.
The surest way to get to Mike is to go through Phoebe, which the film eventually does. But it's in no particular rush. There's a story to tell about family and Mike's lack of it. There a deeper look at Mike's anemic sense of urgency. There's also a ton of violence — bullets in skulls; bullets in chests; bullets everywhere — to be had.
But there aren't many laughs.
The comedy in American Ultra feels like an afterthought, not the focus. The film is often too mean, too uncouth, especially when CIA heads Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) and Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) clash. Sometimes the comedy is there, but is tragically underused, especially in Leguizamo's case. Every so often, like when Phoebe and Mike are breaking out of Rose's stripper basement, the laughs align perfectly. But American Ultra's comedic ambitions often feel like something merely meant to get us to the next action sequence.
American Ultra's satire is too predictable
"There's a chance I might be a robot," Mike tells Phoebe at the beginning of the movie's second act.
The line is brilliant, and it kicks off one of the movie's rare moments of hilarity. But from the way the rest of the movie is scripted, it wouldn't have been that surprising if Mike were, indeed, an android.
American Ultra is written as if you were spoon-feeding it to someone on a bad trip. There is no subtlety, no trust in the audience to figure out these twists. Each curve is explained, extrapolated, and explained again, flattening the film into yards of predictability.
There's also not enough care or logic put into explaining the film's fundamentals. Yates's desire for wanting Mike dead is half-cooked and only exists because he doesn't like Lasseter. Why are all these events happening now instead of a year from now or five years ago? And feel free to take a guess as to whether Mike wants to propose to Phoebe. This would be a gory bit of satire on how conventional super-spy and superhero movies can be, if the film were even the slightest bit aware of it.
American Ultra does have some cutting moments though. There's a deeply cynical view of government bureaucracy embodied by a more-than-apt Grace. He's clunky, dumb, and villainous. But he's also really successful — a salty jab at the system that lets him succeed.
Nourizadeh and Landis, no doubt, wanted to create something smarter than the average stoner comedy, but that also requires trusting an audience to get it. There are patches where the film stalls and crumbles under too much explanation. That's a shame, because the movie does have bite and sterling moments. But you shouldn't have to be stoned to appreciate them.