What if Jason Bourne was a small-town stoner? That’s the only question (and sole joke) screenwriter Max Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh bring to American Ultra, a secret-agent-who-doesn’t-know-it action comedy that sits squarely in the disjunction between those two elements. The protagonist is a stringy-haired convenience store clerk (Jesse Eisenberg) who spends his days smoking pot and loving his patient girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to him, he’s been trained and brainwashed by a secret government program that is now preparing to shut down and must eliminate him to contain loose ends. When heavily armed baddies arrive at the store, he snaps into action, handily dispatching them with alarming speed and dexterity. But he’s still just a panic-attack-prone pothead in West Virginia, entirely unprepared to deal with these suddenly resurging hidden powers as the dangerous situation around him escalates. It’s only a little exciting, and largely unfunny.
The division between a befuddled stoner struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy and calm in the face of ridiculous events and a coolly capable man of action is the source of the movie’s appeal and frustration. On the one hand, Eisenberg is such a compelling screen presence he easily takes the role and bends it towards his stammering, self-effacing, slightly overwhelmed, frazzled comfort zone. On the other, the spy material is handled by yanking between notably violent action and office scenes back at Langley between agents (Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, and Bill Pullman) playing like flat sitcoms with all the jokes clipped out. It’s jarring to sit in a scene where a hyperventilating Eisenberg pours his heart out to Stewart, bringing real emotional intensity, then hop to Grace flailing in search of punchlines that will never arrive.
Listless from beginning to end, the movie never really comes to life or forms a satisfying whole. Oh, sure, there are moderately clever action beats involving improvised weapons formed on the fly from everyday objects. There’s touching chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (reuniting after their lovely Adventureland coupling) who take their relationship through some unexpected twists. There are funny little moments given over to Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, and Lavell Crawford as eccentric shady characters, while Stuart Greer turns in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of what starts as a stereotypical gruff sheriff. But all that only becomes grist for an unrelenting mill of overly self-aware plot and violence, churning through characters and incidents with bloody single-mindedness. The town is increasingly besieged, twisty conspiracies are unraveled, and the movie becomes more of a slave to its clunky genre elements.
The closer we stick with our two lead character’s subjective experience, the better. That’s where the real tension – both suspense and comedy – arrives. Nourizadeh’s debut film, the partially enjoyable teen party found footage comedy Project X, featured a reasonably involving escalation. Landis’s previous script, the found footage superpowers horror movie Chronicle, enjoyed the nervous tension of ordinary people discovering frightening capabilities within themselves. Together they seem to posses the power to make a good version of the American Ultra concept, but the results are slack. Tension flatlines despite increasingly noisier setpieces. Characters don’t deepen beyond broad bland traits. A game cast is stranded in an ugly movie, poorly blocked, sloppily controlled, with smeary cheap-looking digital photography. There’s personality here, but so boringly developed and haphazardly deployed it very quickly lost my patience.