Here’s a confession that maybe I’m not supposed to make: I’ve usually decided, by about the 30-minute mark, whether a movie is any good or not. It’s not that I can’t be dissuaded after that, that a filmmaker can’t come up with a dynamite third act that overcomes a laborious setup, or that a badly fumbled ending can’t negate what came before (how ya doin’, The Gift). But for the most part, films tend to reveal their colors fairly early, and if I’ve gone in hoping to like it — which I always have, the occasional Sandler vehicle notwithstanding — I end up recalibrating my expectations and experience as it goes on. I don’t think this is unique, but it’s a long way of getting around to the nicest thing I can say about Nima Nourizadeh’s American Ultra: that it’s so all over the place, it took me at least an hour to decide it was terrible.
That first hour is a real puzzle, a mishmash of styles, tones, and influences that plays less like Nourizadeh’s making a feature film than a mixtape. The story of a stoner (Jesse Eisenberg) who discovers he’s a deprogrammed CIA operative and ends up fighting for his life after the agency descends on his small town, it’s a loud, ugly, slapdash combination of action movie, pot comedy, criminal romance, and conspiracy thriller — a mash-up of The Bourne Identity, The Big Lebowski, and Natural Born Killers, and about as lumpy and ungainly as you’d imagine such a stew would be.
Yet it was that uncertainty — about what the movie was trying to be, and whether it was accomplishing it — that kept me off-balance in those early stages, less engrossed in the picture than befuddled by it. It is, make no mistake, a ridiculous story, yet American Ultra is oddly light on laughs; entire swaths of the film are played entirely straight, even when such inherently comic actors as Tony Hale and Topher Grace are brought in for support. Action beats emphasize real, bone-crunching, blood-spewing gore, against which the occasional laughs scrape uneasily. It comes advertised as a stoner comedy (and I can attest to this personally, thanks to the bag of rolling papers and other paraphernalia the studio sent), but that element is fairly superfluous, aside from the plot seeming to have been worked out while writer Max Landis (Chronicle) was very, very high. (“No, wait, then they send a drone to fuckin’ bomb him, bro!”)
It’s all assembled at maximum volume and intensity by director Nourizadeh, who seems to have spent a lot of time in pre-production running mid-‘90s Oliver Stone movies (and a few Tarantinos too; the quote-unqote Ironic use of doo-wop music during the destruction of a police station and a rough-and-tumble fistfight is a new low for self-consciously incongruent scoring). His previous credit of note was the execrable Project X, against which this film is at the very least an improvement, inasmuch as you don’t want to pummel every human being in every frame. Eisenberg may not make for the most convincing Bourne-style, working-from-muscle-memory super-spy, but he’s funny and sympathetic, and his relationship with Kristen Stewart (reteaming from the miles-better Adventureland) gives the movie an emotional through-line; they find a dynamic of grounded, loving support, and play it.
But by the time they arrive at the big shoot-em-up, kill-‘em-all climax at the “Max Good” discount store (a sequence ripped off from, of all places, The Equalizer), the battle’s over. American Ultra offers up occasional diversions: a quick but juicy turn for John Leguizamo, a (presumably) nice check for Connie Britton, an object lesson in how not to use Walton Goggins. But what it doesn’t provide is any real reason why it should exist, or why its talented stars would waste their time on it.
American Ultra is out tomorrow.