American Ultra is a much stranger film than its stoner-based ad campaign would indicate. Yes, the main characters get high, but Nima Nourizadeh’s movie is a weird trip that occasionally rides a nice stoner vibe of odd comedy and bizarre antics, but it’s just as likely to indulge in shocking, bloody violence that feels uncomfortably grounded despite the outrageous plot and dim-witted protagonist. Although the movie is grounded by the engaging relationship between its lead characters along with solid performances all around, American Ultra is always stumbling about, which inadvertently keeps the audience on its toes, although it ultimately makes for an exhausting and confused experience.
Mike Powell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a screw-up working in a convenience store in Liman, West Virginia, but he’s happily in a long-term relationship with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). However, it turns out Mike was part of a failed CIA operation called “Wise Man”, and now ambitious upstart Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) wants to make his name at the agency by wiping out the remnants of the program and killing the hapless Mike, who doesn’t remember being part of the program. In order to protect Mike, the program’s former head Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) activates him, but the befuddled stoner can only recall his lethal training, not his past. As Yates sends more forces to eliminate Mike, the sleeper agent must discover his past, protect Phoebe, and stay alive.
When the film speaks in a stoner language, it almost sings. Max Landis’ screenplay deftly walks the line between stereotype and reality, and so when Mike is trying to fumble his way through a metaphor about a car that’s slammed into a tree, and how it represents his relationship with Phoebe, it’s both funny and oddly sweet. Combined with Eisenberg’s rapid-yet-deadpan delivery, the dialogue becomes even more absurd, especially when paired with the outrageous situation, and at its best, the picture adds up to some nice bits of dark comedy.
But because Nourizadeh shoots the film mostly in the dark, and never pushes past a gritty aesthetic, American Ultra has a distracting connotative dissonance. Perhaps the director was trying to balance out the outlandish scenario with grounded visuals, but instead, everything comes off as grotesque, especially the violence. In a more hyperactive film, Mike jamming a dustpan into a guy’s neck would be a gleeful bit of gore, but within the confines of the cinematography, it’s jarring and uncomfortable.
That’s not to say that the film needed to reject realism, but it has all the reality it needs in the emotional relationship between Mike and Phoebe. Eisenberg and Stewart are terrific together, and I want to go back and re-watch Adventureland to see how the two of them have grown as actors because they’ve no doubt matured over the last six years. When the movie pulls them apart, it loses one of its strongest aspects, and reverts to a pointless damsel-in-distress plot, which puts an even greater emphasis on the hollow violence.
Thankfully, American Ultra isn’t a total bloodbath, and it shines when it’s being affable or outright bizarre, and while both of those tie loosely to Mike being a pothead, it’s more in line with him just being a run-of-the-mill screw-up thrown into bizarre circumstances. There’s a charming uniqueness at the center of the movie thanks to the setup and the performances, and it’s just a shame that Nourizadeh feels the need to drench it in buckets of blood.