Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) works a dead-end job, spends his off hours getting high and has panic attacks whenever he even thinks about leaving the small town of Liman, West Virginia, and the only bright spot in his suckhole of a life is his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), whose ridiculously forgiving nature has kept her by his side despite a long list of screw-ups. Their existence is jolted one night when a stranger whispers some gibberish in his general direction triggering a surge of past abilities he acquired as a top secret CIA assassin.
The not-so total recall of those memories comes at the perfect time too as a team of far less capable agents swarms into town intent on terminating the former asset. Mike and Phoebe are forced on the run, pawns in a power play between two agency higher-ups (Connie Britton and Topher Grace), and as more truths come to light Mike realizes that this might finally be the thing that breaks he and Phoebe apart. If it doesn’t kill them first of course.
With the exception of one specific action beat, the parts of American Ultra that succeed do so almost exclusively on the talents of its two leads. The rest of the film feels like an idea that never made it beyond the one-sentence pitch of “stoner/slacker discovers he’s actually a trained killer, hilarity ensues!”
Director Nima Nourizadeh displays the same focus and skill here that he did in his debut, and if you’ve seen 2012’s Project X you know that’s not a plus. There’s an energy to the action and interaction, but it’s manufactured more through editing than through an engaging visual style. One sequence that works beautifully though is a grocery store fight between Mike and some bad guys that unfurls in one long take. The fight choreography shines brightest here showcasing fun (and funny) action, something that happens a couple times throughout, but too often we’re left with a jumble of edits.
What ultimately and increasingly drags the film down though is the back half Max Landis’ (Chronicle) script. It starts strong as it introduces the lovebirds and shows us why they’re the “perfect fucked up couple” – she’s perfect and he’s always fucking things up – but that remains the extent of the film’s character depth. We’re told why Phoebe would be with a guy like Mike, but we never see why Phoebe would be with a guy like Mike. She’s not the only one with a lack of convincing motivation either as neither Lasseter (Britton) nor Yates (Grace) display even the slightest bit of logic behind their actions. No one’s behavior makes much sense even in the confines of their one-dimensional structure.
The marketing is playing up the couple’s smoking habits, but aside from a few punchlines their proclivity for weed is an irrelevant aspect to the film. Like many of the elements that pass for details here, both narrative and character, it’s used simply as a shorthand in place of offering something deeper or more tangible. The lack of real detail does allow the film to move at a steady, enjoyable pace without having to ever slow down, so that’s an accidental plus.
All of that said, Eisenberg and Stewart display real chemistry suggesting that their sweetly humorous turn in Adventureland was no fluke. Their banter, both the comedic riffs and the warmer moments, are the highlights here. There’s a noticeable downturn on Eisenberg’s watch when the two stop sharing screen time, but Stewart elevates the material and finds the heart that’s absent on the page. We don’t believe Phoebe would be in love with Mike, but we believe Stewart believes it – and that illusion is probably the film’s biggest, most successful effect. She sells it through both her verbal and non-verbal performance, and even when the focus is elsewhere Phoebe can often be seen staring lovingly at her man-boy.
American Ultra is a fast-moving, empty watch that works well enough for an hour and a half, but don’t be surprised if you discover short term memory loss setting in once it’s over leaving you with nothing but the lingering image of Stewart’s witty, mischievous grin floating through your mind. There are worse trips you can take.
The Upside: Kristen Stewart injects the cartoon action with real emotion; Jesse Eisenberg earns some laughs; long action take in grocery store; fun, fast watch
The Downside: Script offers little more than a pitch in need of character and depth; nonsensical character behaviors