Director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis came very close to making a first-rate action-comedy-drama with “American Ultra.” Sadly, close will only get you a couple of weeks of attention in theaters, and then it’s off to DVD land.
The reason they fell short is that the drama gets in the way of the action, while the comedy disrupts the drama. These pieces are so disjointed, it feels like this film was put together by a man trying to pull on his shirt and pants at the same time. There is a lot of wasted flailing around before the task finally is accomplished.
Jesse Eisenberg – the human cure for insomnia – plays Mike, a stoner living in a small West Virginia town where he splits his time between working at a local market, being in love with Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and getting high. Definitely not in that order.
His biggest problem is a deep, dark phobia that keeps him from leaving town. That becomes a concern when one night at work two men try to kill him. As if suddenly getting some kind of Matrix implant, Mike is a master of self defense. He is so accomplished, he kills a man with a teaspoon.
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Even his drug-hazy mind knows something is wrong.
He is right. Mike was part of a government experiment to turn third-strike offenders into perfect human weapons. When the project proved a mistake, all of the subjects were eliminated except for Mike. Now that the order has been given to kill Mike and eliminate the last traces of the project, the head of the program, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), comes to his aid. She activates the sleep agent inside the stoner.
Although it isn’t that original, the idea has some merits. It’s the execution that proves to be the spy in the ointment. At times, Nourizadeh pushes the most absurd side of the story in an effort to generate laughs. He makes the film look like a living, breathing graphic novel.
The problem is nothing is that funny.
John Leguizamo plays a drug dealer who is a cartoon version of every drug dealer in film history. And having Walton Goggins portray a killer who whistles all the time after his front teeth get knocked out is as funny as a trip to the dentist.
Even when the film gets serious, the director veers off the path. Britton plays her character with a great sincerity, combining an authoritative and motherly approach. She must then deal with Tony Hale’s office silliness that pales compared to what he has done in “Veep.”
It’s impossible to tell if Topher Grace is playing the rogue agent as fun or serious. He doesn’t have the on-screen weight to be the ruthless leader he tries to be, so it comes across like a third-grader trying to imitate Adolf Hitler.
Eisenberg is the most schizophrenic. His comedy is so dry that it’s hard to tell if he is being funny or is just bored. He does get some strong support from Stewart as his girlfriend. She turns in the most energetic performance of her career.
It’s just that the script meanders around like a drunken tourist at Disneyland. Just when it seems to be headed toward Adventureland, it stumbles into Goofy moments.
“American Ultra” has its good spots. You just have to be patient for them to finally arrive.