Without doubt, American Ultra is the best film yet from London-born director Nima Nourizadeh. The problem for Nourizadeh is that his only other effort thus far is the insipid Project X, so it is pretty much a given that anything to follow was going to be a step up. Although an improvement on his debut, American Ultra falls well short of delivering on the potential of both the premise and a strong cast. Sleeper agents as movie protagonists are nothing new – think The Manchurian Candidate or the Bourne films – but with Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network, The Double) as a small town stoner who possesses, unbeknownst to him, mad skills in martial arts and improvised combat, there was genuine potential here to deliver an interesting and entertaining action comedy. Unfortunately, whilst the opening moments promise something really interesting, the majority of the film is laden with cringe-inducing dialogue, a lack of narrative logic and a general sense that the film has made it to the production stage with minimal executive level oversight. Pitching a really interesting idea is one thing, but developing that idea into something that works as a piece of cinematic art is an altogether tougher task. In fact, much of the movie plays out as though there was a distinct lack of attention to the broader narrative; seemingly relying on the premise alone to somehow compensate for any failings in other areas.
When we first meet Eisenberg’s Mike Howell, a panic attack has prevented him boarding a flight to take his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) on a promised holiday to Hawaii. Upon returning to their backwater town, Mike returns to a daily routine of getting stoned, drawing and whiling away the hours behind the counter of a convenience store. It is only when we cut to CIA headquarters that we learn Mike is actually a sleeper agent, completely oblivious to his capacity to inflict mortal harm; skills that are ‘unlocked’ by rogue CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) in her efforts to warn Mike that he has been marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. When he inadvertently kills two agents he finds tampering with his car, Mike finds himself on the run with Phoebe in tow. From this point, the film becomes a series of action sequences as Mike calls upon his latent skills to take on a swarm of agents led by the smarmy Adrian Yates (Topher Grace).
Eisenberg is an interesting casting choice and he certainly looks more at ease as the perpetually wasted small town ne’er-do-well than he does as the ass-kicking ‘ultra’ of the title, but then again he is lumbered with a lug-headed screenplay courtesy of Max Landis. Stewart (Still Alice, Clouds of Sils Maria) is fabulous as Phoebe, the young woman who, in the words of the local sheriff, functions as Mike’s “girlfriend, mother, maid and landlord.” A strange as it may sound given the context here, the relationship between Mike and Phoebe is somewhat believable and that is in large part due to Stewart’s nuanced performance in a film that otherwise lacks any subtlety whatsoever. In the supporting roles, Grace is particularly grating as the snivelling Yates, whose only concern throughout is his own career trajectory. In fact, you could easily be mistaken for thinking that this is just Eric Forman – Grace’s That ‘70’s Show character – pretending to be a CIA big shot, while Britton does her best to make something of a character that is chronically under-written. John Leguizamo is under-used as local drug dealer Rose, Walton Goggins is a clichéd maniacal operative named Laugher and Bill Pullman turns up for a few minutes and looks like he would rather be somewhere – anywhere – else.
Once all the nonsense dissipates, the final moments of American Ultra offer some insight into what this film could have been. It is now six months later and Mike and Phoebe check into a hotel in the Philippines under the watchful eye of Victoria, for whom they are now obviously working as operatives. When he comes under threat in an elevator, Mike springs into action and the thought of these two travelling the world as a crime-fighting team is very appealing indeed.