Once you’ve gotten the central gimmick of “American Ultra” — that Jesse Eisenberg has been cast as the world’s least likely CIA sleeper agent — you pretty much have the movie pegged.
It is, in every sense, a dopey shoot-em-up, in which violent government people discharge their weapons in the direction of Eisenberg’s violent government person Mike and his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart).
Yes, the setup, scripted by Max Landis and directed by Nima Nourizadeh, is a bit unusual: Mike is a stoner and a dreamer who has no memory of his stint as a highly-trained operative in an experimental program. Phoebe is his all-too-tolerant significant other, suspiciously accepting of Mike’s many flaws. A hothead desk jockey turned big shot at the agency (Topher Grace) decides to eliminate Mike, beginning the trouble.
“American Ultra” fundamentally misunderstands action cinema: There is nothing inherently entertaining about watching people beat the stuffing out of each other, no matter how stylishly rendered. The entertainment value comes from caring about the characters and believing in the situations that have been established surrounding the violence. The movie fails on both fronts.
It is not enough to play on the contrast between Eisenberg’s inherent cerebral twitchiness and the over-the-top video game pyrotechnics. That gets old fast. A few early scenes establishing Mike’s relationship with Phoebe certainly do not suffice when the endless action takes over.
The filmmakers clearly determined that the film could be sustained by the simple fact that these actors and their characters seem to occupy a different universe than Grace’s cartoonish villain, not really belonging in a screenplay that’s so desperate to seem funny and hip it feels like it’s soaked in anxiety.
Colorful neon backrooms, the aisles of gritty supermarkets and empty West Virginia back roads provide evocative settings and Nourizadeh certainly brings a degree of visual flair to the picture.
But a steadfast commitment to the genre’s worst tendencies is the story of the day, and the movie’s undoing.