Published Nov 24, 2015Nima Nourizadeh's American Ultra attempts to wear many hats. It was marketed as a stoner comedy, sharing a campaign aesthetic with the admittedly more successful Pineapple Express. But the film itself is more figuratively dazed, lending itself to an array of extreme interpretations while unfolding like an excessively violent video game with an amorphous romantic backdrop.
When things open, Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), a loser pothead working at a convenience store, is considering proposing to his similarly predisposed girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). It's a premise utilized to only minor effect with some occasionally witty juxtapositions of stoner pontificating with sober reality. In part, this dynamic is maintained throughout, but once a vaguely defined political fuck-up is unveiled in a secondary narrative — when CIA operative Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) decides to go rogue and warn Mike, a dormant killing machine asset, after learning that her weenie co-worker Adrian (Topher Grace) plans to take him out — the tone shifts to an action-survival epic.
In theory, the mirroring of slacker ethos with a high stakes life and death scenario should have an inherently off-kilter and propulsive dynamic. Mike, a product of capitalist excess, sustained by minimal effort and an array of unfulfilled, unattainable dreams, should presumably have a dumbfounded reaction to the fact that he's actually a highly trained killer (one that manages to kill two government operatives in a parking lot with a spoon). At times, American Ultra exploits this premise; while fleeing from the scene of a crime, Mike verbally contemplates his potential artificial origins, which is met with deadpan honesty from Phoebe, generating the intended awry tone.
More often than not, though, this convoluted story backtracks to fill in holes with strained exposition. Once a major plot twist is revealed, Adrian's character is theoretically given more context and connection to Mike and Phoebe, but despite all of the dry dialogue about the CIA mission describing why Mike is a threat, none of it is particularly clear. There's no real understanding of the situation or backdrop that led to this extremist coordinated effort on the part of the CIA, who shut down an entire town and send in trained killers with machine guns and grenades to dispose of one guy.
Presumably, the indirect explanation of politics and motivations is intended to leave room for interpretation. Victoria's decision to ignore the chain of command and sabotage a mission could be read as a reference to the Edward Snowden situation. Similarly, the idea that the American government activated a dormant killer because of political confusion and disorder invokes other issues running amok throughout the world of late.
While these potential interpretations are certainly intriguing and would give analytical minds something to consider, they're also so nondescript that they never quite resonate. This means that the occasionally amusing humour and chaotic action (an escape sequence from a black light room housed by Mike's drug dealer (John Leguizamo) is quite entertaining) are all that's left to save American Ultra from its own mixed, awkwardly paced format. It's also helpful that all of the main actors involved are quite good in their respective roles, mixing comedy, pathos and terror with equal aplomb.
The "Activating American Ultra" supplement goes into great detail about the efforts that went into constructing the film, and the gag reel suggests that the cast had a good time making it. But neither special feature really pinpoints what the greater intention of this passable but forgettable action-comedy really wanted to do.