Like the protagonist of his film, Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra suffers from an identity crisis. The package sounds great on paper: A stoner targeted for elimination by the CIA learns he’s a highly trained government superspy of the Jason Bourne persuasion who gets reactivated in the face of imminent death and becomes a very, very puzzled action hero. That’s the first of the movie’s two faces. The other is a failed somber critique of the very lemon that Nourizadeh squeezes so much lemonade from, the idea that the U.S. powers-that-be are shadier than the Muir Woods and utterly lacking in scruples. But hey, in between commentary on bureaucratic overreach, here’s a dollop of slick hyper-violence.
The film’s Ludlum parody is infinitely more satisfying than its political statements. How could it not be? Nourizadeh has only made one other movie in his career, 2012’s Project X, a frenetic, anarchic take on bad-taste teen romps. What that movie lacks in originality, wit, morality, craft, or redeeming cultural value, it more than makes up for in spirit, which American Ultra has in spades. Taking the movie down a peg for failing to say anything feels like a cheap shot. As a weed-laced riff on spy flicks it’s zany fun, which, when you’re halfway through August and you can see the summer movie season’s finish line in sight, is about as much as you can reasonably expect from Hollywood. As anything more substantial it’s a letdown, but if you’re looking for substance that’s meaningful rather than narcotic from a movie where Jesse Eisenberg plays that aforementioned superspy, you’re toking up the wrong tree.
If not for its mindless, freestyle violence, then American Ultra justifies its existence for putting Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart back on screen together several years after their rom-com duet in 2009’s Adventureland. Eisenberg plays Mike, a twitchy burnout living in a small town called Liman. (Probably not by accident, the burg shares a surname with Doug Liman, who directed The Bourne Identity. Gentlemen, start your winking.) Stewart plays Phoebe, his nearly equally roasted girlfriend. She has the patience of a saint when it comes to Mike, who loves her to death but can’t build up the nerve to propose to her. He has the ring. He just needs the right moment. They plan a trip to Hawaii, but Mike freaks out in the toilet and they never get off the ground. Instead, they wind up on the radar of Yates (Topher Grace), an agency sleazeball out to knock off dormant agency assets as a cost-saving measure. Mike’s attempt to leave town raises red flags for Yates, and puts our hero right in his crosshairs.
Yates’ plot is thwarted by Lasseter (Connie Britton), Mike’s guilt-ridden former trainer, who hoofs it to Liman to awaken Mike before the spooks can get to him. Thanks to sinister governmental experimentation, Mike is good at killing people. In fact, he’s stellar, kind of like a murderous improvisational jazz player. Whether spoons or shovels, Mike makes do with what he can get his hands on, and so begins a bloody chase through the streets of Podunk America. Setting the mayhem in the literal middle of nowhere gives American Ultra’s formula unexpected spice: Spy films tend to inhabit richer, more exotic spaces. Liman is such a forgotten backwater that it takes on a weird exoticism itself. It’s the perfect place to get high, start afresh, draw cartoons about monkey astronauts, and ask profoundly unprofound existential questions.
American Ultra suffuses its ho-hum locale with a metric ton of flash, but once your eyes adjust to its stylized flair, there’s not a lot to see. Eisenberg and Stewart make a nice pair, the secondary performances are a pleasure—Britton in particular, but also John Leguizamo, who plays Liman’s whatever-you-want dealer with grimy relish, and Walton Goggins, who shows up as a giggly assassin and gives him surprisingly human depth—the characters are roundly likable, and the action is crisp, effectively sanguine, and creative in a way that’s also totally uninventive. That’s all there is, though, so basically all Nourizadeh has done here is present us with a gorily refreshing Popsicle that wants to have its joint and take a drag off it, too.
Can a movie like American Ultra be earnestly anti-establishment if it’s leaning on said establishment as fuel for crimson-tinged entertainment? In a reversal of old wisdom, someone loses an eye and it’s horrible, but the film quickly devolves into fun and games. The problem is a matter of perspective: Nourizadeh lacks any, staging carnage only in the interest of getting from point A to point B. That’s fine, but if you’re going to aim low, aim lower instead of trying to hit Bond, Bourne and Pineapple Express with the same dart.
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman
Release Date: August 21, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.