There’s plenty of room in the world for an cutting take on the CIA and its secret programs, but Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra wastes the opportunity in a haze of CGI-assisted pot smoke. This 2015 movie comes from the director of Project X, a “detestable, mind-emptying affair” from 2012, but it’s a more cohesive outing.
Nourizadeh helms a mouthy screenplay from Max Landis, with Michael Bonvillain handling the cinematography. It sells itself as the juncture of a stoner comedy and a spy thriller, with a little old-fashioned violence thrown in for good measure. But the rich possibilities of the subject matter are left uncharted and American Ultra plays it remarkably safe.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a stoner from the town of Liman. He has panic attacks. He works at a convenience store and wants to propose to his sweetheart Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), who is a flannel enthusiast and bail bondswoman. CIA agent Victoria (Connie Britton) discovers that Mike is the sole survivor of the Ultra program.
What’s more, he’s been targeted for elimination by Adrian (Topher Grace). Victoria rushes to Liman to “activate” Mike so he can defend himself from the onslaught of assassins and he quickly regains various skills, but he’s unable to remember much about his past life. As Adrian and his Tough Guy program operatives zero in, Mike has to find out what he’s really made of.
Eisenberg doesn’t make for the best stoner, even if he does succeed at bringing a certain degree of detached insipidness. His character is lethargic (duh) and it can be hard to get behind him because there’s no energy to be found. His violent explosions are the stuff of generic spy thrillers, complete with rotary slow-mo shots and computer-generated carnage.
Stewart doesn’t fare much better as Phoebe. She’s just kind of there. Even after her character is granted more complexity, she struggles to overcome the damsel in distress model. While she does get to pick up a gun every so often, she’s not as sharp as she should be.
The supporting characters are hollow. Grace plays his part like a pissy fast food manager, which delivers some interesting layers but doesn’t go far enough. Britton is utterly wasted as the sympathetic Victoria, while Tony Hale’s Petey could’ve been played by any second-tier character actor. Bill Pullman has a brief thankless turn as Adrian’s superior.
The Ultra program, which effectively refers to the CIA’s programs of mind control, should provide a wealth of possibilities. The potential for characters and incidents is endless, but American Ultra restrains it in clichés and stoner movie mud. Given the druggy history of programs like MKUltra, it’s hard not to be disappointed by this lack of fancy.
American Ultra toys with its central concept of spaced-out lovers in a perilous profession, but the ground is well-trod and Nourizadeh brings nothing new to the table. The pic even smokes out any tension by running things through a meaningless flashback scenario that lets the audience know everything’s going to be okay.
And with nowhere to go, Nourizadeh’s movie goes down. It tumbles into lethargic action scenes, complete with a late-game superstore shootout and an engagement with a frying pan that’s weighed down by a sheer lack of visual imagination. Thanks to all the smoke and mirrors of its tame plot and insubstantial characters, American Ultra is a spiritless and ultimately forgettable bore.