Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as a pair of mismatched small-town stoners, hopelessly in love without prospects or aspirations in Nima Nourizadeh’s “Project X” followup “American Ultra.” Eisenberg’s laid-back character, Mike, is also a “stoned cold killer” waiting to be activated by the CIA. And after killing two covert operatives with nothing more than a spoon, Mike and Stewart’s Phoebe, become targeted by a unified U.S. military calvary.
The film looks to send up the stereotype already held about stoners: they are paranoid. And they are moonstruck dreamers with delusions of grandeur that they’re being followed by the FBI, or are involved in a government conspiracy plotting to take them down. Which makes Mike and Phoebe’s conceits all the more plausible. Under the surface of this manic juxtaposition of firearms, black helicopters, and sleeper cell agents, could Mike and Phoebe be battling their own hazy, unwelcome high?
In what could prove to be another breezy, late summer blockbuster affair, according to critics, Nourizadeh goes full throttle with comic strip violence, caricatured pot humor, and not much else. But audiences will go for Stewart and Eisenberg’s endearing characters.
“American Ultra” lights up theaters on August 21, 2015.
The Hollywood Reporter
Stoners take a bloodbath in “American Ultra,” a genre mash that’s mildly amusing until it can’t think of anything else to do besides flop around in the deep end of conspicuous gore. Taking a vacation from more serious projects by playing a couple of lethargic, ambition-free tokers who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a Joe Carnahan movie, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart smoke and say “like” and the f-word a lot and eventually kick plenty of butt in a way that looks to cook up a couple of weeks of buzzy late summer business with good-times-seeking young audiences.
Nima Nourizadeh’s “American Ultra” is a bloody valentine attached to a bomb. It’s violent, brash, inventive and horrific, and perhaps the most romantic film of the year. It feels at once young and angry, unhinged and sincere, like a teenager scribbling “Screw you” to everyone but his first crush. It’s laced with jokes but aimed deeper into our guts. Any movie could shoot a scene of Jesse Eisenberg emerging from a cloud of smoke in a bloody Hawaiian shirt for laughs. Only this movie could do it to make you cry.
The script, penned by Max Landis (“Chronicle”) is slick and shallow and almost cartoonishly violent, and plot-wise it’s all basically a boondoggle. Still, the movie is a fun mess, and Eisenberg and Stewart, who last costarred in the understated 2009 indie “Adventureland,” make for unlikely but endearing (anti-) heroes; they’re Bonnie and Clyde with a water bong, an extra-high body count, and some kind of moral compass (albeit a spinning one) at the center. Check your brain at the popcorn-butter pump in the lobby.
“American Ultra” is a prime example of a film that takes a good idea and does shockingly little with it. The premise is intriguing, basically The Bourne Identity but with said sleeper agent being a working poor stoner as opposed to a stone-cold amnesiac. That notion opens itself up to all kinds of possibilities in terms of storytelling choices and social commentary, but Max Landis’s screenplay basically goes through the motions and takes the path of least resistance. There are strong performances throughout and a few moments of surprising pathos. But overall, American Ultra is the least challenging and thus most disappointing variation on the premise that you could imagine. It’s not exactly a bad movie, as you get what you pay for, and it’s mostly entertaining, but it seems to have stopped thinking as soon as it finished the logline.
In a summer film slate awash with reboots, sequels and dutifully box-checking superhero product, it’s refreshing to see a genre film made from a completely original screenplay. Yet “American Ultra,” a stoner action-comedy directed by Nima Nourizadeh from a script by Max Landis, too often plays like an earnest yet unsatisfying adaptation of a cult graphic novel, with most of the charm lost in translation. Full of clever ideas, bloody violence so cartoonish that it’s almost cuddly, and an eminently likable leading pair in Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, the film has a lot going for it but, like a fridge-clearing omelet prepared after too many bong hits, it can’t manage to cook all these goodies into a palatable whole.