Some movies, good and bad, conveniently provide the vocabulary with which to criticize them. When reviewing a bad one, like the action-comedy “American Ultra,” a small amount of generosity is required because my job has been made a little easier. So while I didn’t hate the film, about a hapless stoner who turns out, to his surprise, to have once been a lethal government operative, I found it to be half-baked. Despite a few potent hits of the good stuff — solid performances, a tender romance — what “Ultra” offers is mostly synthetic. My advice: pass this blunt.
I hope I’m not coming off as conservative. That would align me with the movie’s villain, an overzealous CIA chief looking to get promoted. Played by Topher Grace, he orders a team of brainwashed assassins to eliminate Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), the last loose end of a failed sleeper agent program. Mike lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in a small, rundown town in West Virginia. Far from being a government liability or any kind of threat whatsoever, Mike spends his days smoking pot and working at the local mini-mart while worrying that his unambitious lifestyle is holding Phoebe back from pursuing bigger and better things. When their lives are threatened, a mysterious woman triggers Mike’s dormant survival skills along with the repressed memories of his former life.
The ensuing scenes of shootouts and hand-to-hand brawls are rarely exciting. Staged at various locations like a police station, a parking lot, or in the Day-Glo basement of Howell’s drug dealer (an amusing, paranoid John Leguizamo), their bloody brutality doesn’t jibe with the cartoonish characters or the light script. This jarring juxtaposition certainly reflects Howell’s own surprise at his sudden transformation — one minute he’s stocking shelves, and the next he’s dealing death with a spoon — but it quickly grows tiresome. Apart from a few witty sight gags, say, when fireworks are used as projectiles, or when two characters are tased by police, the film, directed by Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”), lacks any kind of distinctive visual flair.
The script, from Max Landis (“Chronicle”), is equally generic. That I cared at all for these characters is a testament only to the talent of the actors. Despite some pretty stiff dialogue, Stewart still manages to convey with genuine pathos the history of Phoebe’s love for Mike. Eisenberg is just as good. He’s particularly funny in life-or-death moments when his character’s wits are slowed by the influence of marijuana. In one scene, Eisenberg brilliantly sells Mike’s delayed reaction to the fact that he’s holding in his hand an active grenade. It takes him a few more seconds to realize he should toss it back in the direction it came from. The scene works because it’s one of the few in the movie that successfully marries stoner humor with heightened violence.
But “American Ultra” wants to be more than just a genre mashup. At times the movie evokes, but never seriously engages with, an age-old clash between two cultures. One is embodied by Mike, who would prefer to be left alone to his own harmless vices. The other, which takes the form of a malevolent government agency, is bent on physical and ideological conquest. Mind control, for example, is an integral part of the CIA program. Pete, an agency employee played by the hilarious Tony Hale (of the TV shows “Veep” and “Arrested Development”), finds himself somewhere in the middle. In one scene he can barely contain the joy and fear he feels from defying a direct order. Though Pete’s giddy mood is spoiled when he ends up in the literal crosshairs of his boss’ henchmen, he’s learned that true freedom, for those who seek it and for those who oppose it, is both irresistible and a tremendous source of anxiety.
This topic — and the divide between liberals and conservatives, the counterculture and the establishment — was better explored in “Inherent Vice,” director Paul Thomas Anderson’s scrumptious, melancholy epic set in 1970s Los Angeles and adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel. Both films feature habitual, yet innocent drug users and pit them against an antagonistic system. You can guess which side “American Ultra” is on, but only “Inherent Vice” has anything intelligent to say about being an outsider deemed worthless by the powerful. That movie is a memorable trip, grounded in a deeply textured sense of time and place. This one is just a cheap, surface-level high. Like Mike Howell, whose panic attacks prevent him from leaving town to seek a better life, “American Ultra” goes nowhere.
A version of this review appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on Aug. 27, 2015.