American Ultra is a real downer of an action comedy

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Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in American Ultra
  • Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg in American Ultra

The trailer for American Ultra promised something like The Bourne Identity by way of Pineapple Express, with an aimless stoner (Jesse Eisenberg) discovering that he’s really a CIA-programmed killing machine with amnesia. That is in fact the plot, but the mood is far more melancholy than the trailer conveyed. American Ultra isn’t an exuberant action comedy like Pineapple, but rather a downbeat suspense film with jokey elements. (Screenwriter Max Landis is the son of director John Landis, and his ambitious, if unsuccessful, mix of tones suggests an update of his father’s noble failure Into the Night.) This could explain why the movie isn’t a hit—viewers might have felt deceived by the advertisements and told others to stay away. Also the film’s anti-pot message is likely a turnoff to all those stoners who went to see Pineapple in droves.

The stoner hero of Ultra isn’t just a loser before he starts kicking ass—he’s virtually a composite of every negative pothead stereotype. Mike is unambitious, naive, forgetful, accident-prone, and so psychologically addicted to marijuana that he can’t go more than a couple hours without smoking it. His most redeeming quality may be his devotion to his girlfriend Phoebe, a more functional stoner who helps him keep his life from going to shambles. Mike’s also gentle and imaginative, yet he lacks the motivation to make good on either attribute. The film shows that he’s filled notebooks with sketches for a comic book series that will likely never come to fruition, and because he’s always too stoned, his attempts at kindness often turn out garbled.

Even Mike’s surroundings are pathetic. He and Phoebe live in a small, underpopulated West Virginia town whose most impressive sight may be the electrical-transmission towers. (The settings look especially lonely at night, which is when most of the action takes place.) They work, respectively, at a convenience store and a bail bondsman’s office. They rarely interact with other people on the job—when they aren’t cooped up in their house, it seems that Mike and Phoebe are cooped up inside their own heads. Director Nima Nourizadeh makes purposeful use of long shots, often isolating the characters in empty landscapes and interiors that correspond to their empty existence.

The revelations of Mike’s past, which should be funny or thrilling, register as somewhat sad. It turns out that his memory was erased because the CIA experiment in which he was a guinea pig failed, and that he’s lived under government surveillance ever since. In his reprogramming the CIA made him addicted to marijuana and afraid to travel, since he would be more docile that way and thus easier to monitor. The news comes like an addict’s paranoid, delusional explanation for why he has no control over addiction. Mike’s life wouldn’t be any different if he were just another pothead loser (and if a rogue CIA officer wasn’t trying to kill him). He’d do nothing of value, living like a deactivated machine.

Eisenberg plays Mike like an abandoned puppy, helpless and chronically nervous. It’s a touching performance, rooted in an emotional specificity that keeps the character from slipping into caricature. (Kristen Stewart, who plays Phoebe, is just as good—she brings such tenderness to the character that one rarely questions why she’d stay with a loser like Mike.) Mike appears helpless even when demonstrating his superior fighting skills, since he has as little control over them as he has over his addiction. Placing such a passive character at the center of an action movie represents an interesting inversion of genre formula, although it results in sense of dramatic dead weight. This could be another reason why American Ultra, for all its novel ideas, hasn’t caught on with audiences. Who wants to feel dragged down during an action movie?


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