Well here’s a real high concept movie, ho ho ho. Imagine a suburban American wasteland in which every dead-end stoner was really an undercover super soldier waiting to be weaponized at the flip of a suit’s switch, every beaten-up convenience store an activation point for CIA assassins slumming it in flannel shirts and Chuck Taylors. It makes sense that the government would tap its greatest natural resource: bored kids from middle-America, joint in one hand, joystick in the other; an instant army of clones with resilient bodies, limited short-term memory, and dubious ethical capacity ready to blindly serve their country. American Ultra isn’t quite that movie, but it’s got one great central gag that suggests it might have been – if only the creators had ditched the action template and let it run right off the rails into the weird places it needed to go. Gregg Araki would have known what to do.
In this, the second feature from Project X director Nima Nourizadeh, written by Chronicle’s Max Landis, Jesse Eisenberg plays twentysomething deadbeat Mike Howell, a West Virginia slacker whose life consists of getting high, working at the local Cash-n-Carry and doodling a comic book about the intergalactic adventures of an astronaut ape. His loving girlfriend Phoebe, fellow Adventureland co-star Kristen Stewart, shares his taste for the going-nowhere existence; together the two of them are an Urban Outfitters catalogue come to life: all lumberjack coats, spandex pattern pants, combat boots and strategically greasy hair. Eisenberg and Stewart, both notoriously droll in their real-life promo duties, have an unsurprisingly sweet chemistry, whether they’re blazing up on the bonnet of a crappy car and gazing into the night sky or scrambling for excuses while being interrogated by a local drug detective. Mike and Phoebe are totally infatuated with each other, and honestly, the movie could’ve stayed in this low-gear burnout love story and it would have been perfect – in how many other Hollywood movies will you see Stewart sporting (and owning) actual pimples in close-up? – but if you’ve seen the trailer (which more or less blows all the best bits) you already know that Nourizadeh and Landis have their eyes on a bigger prize.
As it turns out, Mike was part of a top-secret government program to experiment on juvenile offenders and transform them into state-sanctioned killing machines, a scheme that was later shut down with its remaining subjects put into memory-erased hiding. His life under threat from a CIA clean-up looking to erase any trace of the operation, Mike is launched back into action after unwittingly murdering a pair of agency goons with ninja-like precision in a parking lot. “What if I’m a robot,” the dazed Eisenberg wonders to Stewart at one point, echoing the low-rent paranoia of every bored kid who’s ever longed to escape suburbia. It’s a cool joke. But what now? American Ultra doesn’t have much else up its sleeve.
There are few lazier dismissals in film criticism than “it doesn’t know what it wants to be” – as though a movie need be anything other than what it damn well pleases – and it’s a line sure to be leveled at American Ultra. If anything, though, it would have benefitted from being more of a mess: wilder, looser, the kind of anything-goes escapade that might better capture the stoned rhythms of its protagonists (i.e., yep, an Araki movie). Instead, what could have been (and occasionally hints at being) a scummy little us-against-them, lovers-on-the-run throwaway gets cramped by the plot of a second-rate action movie involving government bad guys that try to neutralize Eisenberg’s rogue weapon. Everything great about American Ultra – Eisenberg and Stewart’s genuine rapport, the beautiful photography of strip mall lots and blacklight neon basements – grinds to a groan whenever the movie marches to the beat of a standard action movie. Nourizadeh shoots in that sweet spot of excess violence and pothead comedy that distinguished the likes of David Gordon Green’s Pineapple Express, but crucially the film’s just never funny enough – neither Eisenberg or Stewart are inherently comic actors, and the hammy, misjudged performances from John Leguizamo and Topher Grace appear to be lifted direct from a kids afternoon TV show. Only Walton Goggins, as a toothless, mentally deranged hired thug, manages to find the tone – and, oddly, an unexpectedly sympathetic moment that’s almost moving.
The most disappointing thing about American Ultra, though, is how it squanders our greatest living actress Kristen Stewart,1 in what is – shock of ratty electric orange hair and everything – at the very least her best on-screen look to date. Even after we learn of her character’s true agency, Landis and Nourizadeh still leave her stranded with nothing to do but be a clichéd damsel in distress, a role she performs, teeth gritted (natch), with nonetheless admirable gusto. Worse, the shortcoming exposes the rather trite male fantasy of the movie, in which our hero is a lazy, comic-book-drawing male stoner with an unreasonably hot girlfriend and an effortless ability to kick everyone’s ass. To that extent, Mike’s “Apollo Ape” comic book might be the film’s real achievement: a lively animated credit sequence that brings to life the simian’s exploits seems more like the movie Nourizadeh should have made instead.
Perhaps the best that can be said of American Ultra – and this is no glib put-down – is that it does look rather fetching, with pretty accessorized clothes, buzzing neon, picture-perfect parking lots and candy-coloured explosions that’ll live on via tumblr long after the movie’s been relegated to the studio’s flop ledger. After all, sometimes a killer gif of Kristen Stewart – bruised, bloodied and defiantly flipping the middle finger to some jerk – is everything one could wish for in modern cinema.