There are films made to enlighten and leave you with a heightened state of mind. Then there are films meant to be watched with an already “heightened” state of mind. American Ultra caters much more to one than the other. I’ll give you 420 guesses as to which one that is. It is the only explanation as to how the story of a sleeper-agent stoner named Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) can be accepted in the realm of (altered) reality. The premise is a fun one and could have been executed to a hilariously fulfilling end if it had been developed beyond its shock-comedy infancy. After being “activated” by the CIA Ultra program head Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), Max finds himself with new found abilities. His longtime girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) seems unusually calm around the mounting carnage. Or maybe it’s just the paranoia sometimes inherent with marijuana use.
Writer Max Landis, the other half of the duo that created the refreshing revelation that is Chronicle, bring us another tale of unlikely heroes trying to cope with their newly discovered abilities. A few weeks ago, we saw how Josh Trank’s next hero film sacrificed its nuanced story and humble roots in exchange for for a bigger stunts and expensive graphics. We can see the same thing happen in American Ultra, where Landis’ story feels like a guest star in its own film.
There are very few moments created by the script that make us believe some greater intellectual point or comment on society is close to being made, but they all prove to be red herrings meant to give way to some gruesomely induced comedic punchline. It’s hard to tell if Landis purposely watered down his script to cater more to the targeted drug-dependant audience, or if he meant for his dialogue to come off as a series of pseudo-intellectual musings. The point is that style won out in every aspect of the film. That includes the comedic style that seems to have dominated even the visual aspects of the film.
In American Ultra, director Nima Nouridazeh likes to pile on scenes of action and fighting to confuse into believing there is anything actually happening. Without a great story behind it, everything just feels like a violent opera performance on mute. Sure, it’s great to look at, and entertaining to a certain degree, but ultimately without substance. Substances, on the other hand, they had plenty of. I may have even enjoyed this stoner film if I had emulated the main character before seeing it. Missed opportunity, I suppose.
Jesse Eisenberg’s performance reminded me of his character in Rio, where a timid, chronically scared bird became a clumsy hero, sometimes accidentally saving the day. Just replace the bird with a live-action human and add infinitely more gore. It doesn’t play as well in real life. I think I preferred the bird. Something that transferred well from the actors’ previous performance from their last collaboration, Adventureland, was Eisenberg and Stewart’s charming chemistry together. Splattered in this blood-soaked hodgepodge of thematic elements is an endearing love story. Somewhere between the beheadings and the comedic ultra-violence is where it lives while everything else around it dies.
RATING: ★★★ (3/10 stars)