If you think back to 2008’s Pineapple Express – and you will, it’s the film from which American Ultra most closely resembles – you’ll recall that up until the moment when the whole thing went off the rails and turned into a violent action bloodbath at least the early stoner element was funny. For roughly fifteen minutes it was the best Cheech and Chong comedy the duo never made. American Ultra follows the same path, or at least it’s billed that way; a stoner comedy with action. Like Pineapple Express, the action develops into an unpleasant, violent bloodbath; unlike Express, the stoner element isn’t that funny, and here’s why.
Jesse Eisenberg, looking perpetually in need of a shower, is Mike Howell, a likeable enough doofus who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, who here continues to impress as she further removes herself from the dour-faced plank of wood she played throughout the Twilight series). Mike works the early morning shift at a local Cash N Carry convenience store and smokes a ton of weed. He even rolls one by the cash register before the customers arrive; it’s the only way to wake and bake in the small town of Liman, West Virgina, a place where nothing ever happens.
Then something does happen, and Mike has no way of explaining it. Two heavily armed guys approach the stoner in the parking lot outside of the convenience store and pull their weapons. Holding nothing more than a cup of instant soup and a spoon, in the blink of an eye, Mike efficiently dispatches the two attackers as if his inner Jason Statham had suddenly emerged.
“I just killed two people,” a panicked and distraught Mike tells his half asleep girlfriend after he runs back to the apartment. “Baby, that’s awesome,” she mumbles wanting nothing more than to turn over and go back to sleep. But from that point, sleep is the last thing either of these small town stoners will be doing. Mike, it turns out, is a sleeper government agent, trained in the arts of weaponry and killing, and his inner martial arts killer is now activated, yet stoner Mike remains clueless. What he doesn’t know, but will soon discover, is that he was placed in Liman to basically disappear, his memory wiped for his own protection, and for at least five years or so, that’s where he’s been hanging out, doing nothing more than smoking joints, working minimum wage and getting high with his girlfriend. “There’s a chance I might be a robot,” Mike speculates.
The setup is good, and that initial moment when Mike uses what he has to defend himself – the spoon and the cup of soup – is both a surprise and a strong beginning, but what follows degenerates into such graphically flinch-inducing nastiness, any humor the film tries to inject between the exploding, slo-mo Sam Peckinpah styled fleshy blood squibs is gone. Again, this is another example of filmmakers – in this case, writer Max Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh – who try to sell the action as nothing more than cartoon violence yet present it with the detailed realism of an explicit ‘R’ rated thriller. The end credits depicting artists’ renditions from a teenager’s action-packed graphic novel are an indication of the tone American Ultra was going for – Kick-Ass minus all the good bits – but it’s all buried under such a barrage of meanness.
Topher Grace is Adrian Yates, the CIA bad guy, and both his maniacal character and his motives make no sense. He’s the up and coming government desk agent in Washington who appears to have one motive in mind and that’s to rise within the ranks of Langley. For some reason, he feels that by eliminating stoner Mike in small town Liman – Mike is the last link to one of those government experiments with human guinea pigs that went wrong – the program will be forever buried and he’ll get a promotion for using his initiative. But when Mike’s inner killer emerges, with the help of Phoebe who has a secret or two of her own, there’s nothing and no one that can pin him down. Unfortunately, Yates is so crazily over-zealous he even sends in a drone to blow up the small town with every innocent resident in it, just to eliminate Mike. Frankly, it’s stupid.
There’s a running joke regarding whether Mike can find the right time to propose to his girlfriend, but there’s no real payoff, particularly when the moment he chooses to show Phoebe the ring is right after a blood-soaked combat in the Kitchenware section of a supermarket, involving all kinds of pointy objects to the body and an axe to the head. Some may smile, but for the majority of others it may come across as ill-timed, bad comedy. It’s difficult to laugh when you’re still getting over watching the mutilation of others presented seriously.
Connie Britton is Victoria, a CIA agent with a conscience. She plays the character straight as if in a different film and she’s the one who tries to help stoner Mike and girlfriend Phoebe escape the clutches of Topher Grace. After witnessing the ridiculous lengths to which Grace’s character will go in order to simply eliminate Mike, Victoria declares in horror, “This behavior makes no sense.” It’s the only line that does.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 99 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)