American Ultra is a fun, creative little lark of a movie… that also frequently takes dark detours and mires in nasty ultraviolence. It’s a bit of an odd bird, this one, a brash summer action comedy with emo indie overtones. Or is it the other way around? Either way, it’s a wild ride with plenty of quirky laughs and creative thrills, but the filmmaking is thrown down like a gauntlet that we’re never quite sure is a sign of filmic confidence or audience punishment.
Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) certainly wields the camera brazenly, helming each sequence with an assured hand – though every few minutes that assurance seems to be placed in service to a different tone. Part of that may be due to the fact that this screenplay, by Max Landis (Chronicle), starts with a fun premise – lazy stoner with panic attacks is actually a lethal CIA operative – but drifts into some saccharine emotional territory as it unfolds. But a lot of the blame must lie with the director, who permits the film to go down a rabbit hole of emotional trauma and rogue killing that lands with a heavy hand… or any heavy blunt instrument of your choosing, since a full complement is employed throughout the film.
Not that it isn’t fun to watch people get hit with blunt instruments. It’s actually so fun, in fact, that it has sort of become its own cottage industry thanks to YouTube and Vine. It’s just that when the hits are accompanied by repeated, exaggerated gushes of blood spurting all over the screen, the comedy factor dwindles ever-so-slightly. Such a bloodbath ensues when unsuspecting mellow pothead Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is sieged by an onslaught of trained government assassins after being marked for “termination” by a hot-shot young CIA desk jockey (Topher Grace). Why take out a goofball stoner who works the checkout counter at a local grocery store and nervously contemplates proposing to his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart)? As it turns out, Mike was part of an abandoned CIA program with a goal of developing the ultimate human killing machine. In fact, he is the ultimate human killing machine. After a continuing series of drug arrests, his existence is viewed as a government liability, hence the covert op to eliminate him. When Mike’s former handler (Connie Britton) gets wind of the plot, she heads to his sleepy Virginia town and speaks a code phrase that activates those dormant sections of his brain. As a result, he retaliates based on instinct, obliterating one troop of trained killers after another.
It’s a great concept, if for no other reason than the notion of Jesse Eisenberg as indestructible action hero is my kind of quirky. And he’s good in the role – his patented blend of nervousness and self-deprecation is a good comic contrast to the hardcore spy action. The cast is actually good all the way down – especially Stewart, who mines unexpected depth and uncommon agency in this would-be typical girlfriend role.
It’s the shifting tone, to which the actors must frequently adjust, that’s the problem. Comedy is the movie’s intended pitch, but there are lapses of faux-indie preening that take the narrative down a tepid, maudlin path. And then there’s the issue of the film’s propensity for gruesome violence, which occasionally works for comic value but too often feels discordant with the lighthearted spirit of the premise. Through the haze of gunfire and blood splatters, we get that this is really just a simple movie about a dude learning who he really is. All that toking is just a substitute for his lost soul. He’s a nervous weakling who just needs to unlock his inner killer.
In that spirit, American Ultra works as a piece of comic-action quirk. Had the filmmakers nailed down a consistent tone, however, it could’ve been much more.