A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability
and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high
for them to handle.
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton
This has ‘cult following’ written all over it. By ‘cult following’, I mean the imaginative, hapless dreamers that have no doubt already imagined being in the exact same position as our main character here. For every stoner that has ever imagined what it would be like to do and be all the things they wanted if they could only either be lucky enough to have adventures like they do in the movies or were naive enough to believe that they would ever travel further than the kitchen to get another slice of pizza (yes, I’ve been there and I too have had the same meandering thoughts), there is a ready-made actor waiting to show them how it plays out.
So recognition plays a large part of the familiarity and also in the goodwill here, fostered by an audience that really want to see what this character would do when put in this almost farcical position that they have at least once pictured themselves in. If you’ve watched the trailer and then went to see/plan to see the film, then chances are you too have asked yourself the same questions and put yourself, metaphorically at least, in the same unenviably dangerous positions as Mike finds himself in.
As a CIA sleeper agent, stoner Mike works with suitably lacklustre enthusiasm at the local supermarket. He has been brainwashed and remembers nothing of his previous life, until a smart, confident woman walks into his store and ‘triggers’ his dormant skills, fearing that he is soon to be killed by his own unknown superiors. Inexplicably, he becomes an unstoppable super-assassin killing machine, yet fails to know the reasons why, as although his skills have returned, he is still none the wiser with regard to his memories that he didn’t know he’d forgotten, having seemingly never had them, as far he is concerned. What follows is little more than surviving, with the help of girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), in spite of the many dangers thrown in their path.
More Zombieland than Adventureland all told, this threatens on occasion to become quite gripping, but Eisenberg still seems to want to play for the laughs when there really isn’t any to be had and cast differently, this could quite easily have delivered an alternative feel altogether. Eisenberg is almost as comic as the space monkeys he draws in his little notebook and Stewart is, as usual, largely underused and overlooked. The addition of Connie Britton, who we’re never quite sure is about to tell a joke or not (such is the writing and not the delivery, really) and John Leguizamo as drug dealer/gangster just doesn’t really convince. Add to this the horrible performance of Topher Grace, and you have a production that ultimately doesn’t have any more going for it than it does have against it, leaving us sometimes thrilled but frustrated just as often.
Personally, I cannot help but feel that Eisenberg is not likeable or engaging enough in anything to really root for, and dressing up the king of cinematic mumble core in a role that he would no doubt be living for real had he not lucked into acting in the first place will not save this from the completely average aura that American Ultra gives off. From time to time, it genuinely does sparkle, like the unusual use of luminescence which worked very well on the big screen. I wouldn’t have complained if the whole project had been filmed that way, if I’m honest.
Overall, this never soars, but threatens to scrape the barrel a little too often to ignore. Failing to convince as a thriller or a comedy (I’m not sure if it was meant to be both, or neither, or either) the characters are hard to get a grip of, due mostly to an unconvincing, lacklustre script and the delivery thereof. Not the best work from many featured.