American Ultra tries to be a slacker romance, a dark comedy and an ultra-violent action thriller, but inelegant tonal shifts and slapdash production keep it from ably accomplishing any genre.
Doing his time in the dog days of this summer movie season, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, an unmotivated pothead living in frustrated obscurity in a fictional West Virginia podunk called Liman. Mike’s live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), wants him to move away, but he suffers from a psychological aversion to leaving town. So he toils at the local five and dime and spends his copious free time smoking weed and doodling violent comics about a NASA test monkey named Apollo Ape.
Unbeknownst to Mike, his drawings are repressed expressions of his true identity as a lethal sleeper agent that smug CIA suit Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) wants to … recruit, restart, kill, capture? But before the black helicopters descend on Liman, Mike’s former CIA controller (Connie Britton) arrives to reactivate his dormant deadly demeanor in order to save himself and Phoebe, who is also more than she seems.
Mike is soon dispatching truckloads of black ops assassins, most of them marionettes like him, including Laugher (Walter Goggins), who improbably transforms from psychotic killer to sympathetic figure. Locals such as Mike’s pusher, Rose (John Leguizamo), get caught in the crossfire. As the innocent body count rises, the question becomes whether there are any actual good guys in this shambles.
The chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart, reuniting after their 2009 rom-com Adventureland, is American Ultra’s most genuine aspect. But Eisenberg’s nerdy, neurotic nebbish is more Mark Zuckerberg than Jason Bourne, and we never buy his transformation into a stone-cold stoner. Stewart acquits herself so well you wish you’d seen a story about Phoebe as the fallow female assassin, if that plotline weren’t already overdone, too (La Femme Nikita, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Salt, etc.).
American Ultra aims for an amalgam of Pineapple Express and The Bourne Identity—an outrageous mix of stylized action and broad, bloody humor. But the final result from director Nima Nourizadeh feels ill-fitting and awkwardly assembled, like a graphic novel adaptation that never quite leaps off the page.