It’s difficult to articulate without going into near unprofessional superlatives, just how punchable the odious and insufferable “American Ultra” is. It’s a deeply unsophisticated movie about a dummy stoner, his dutifully suffering girlfriend, and the government agencies that are trying to kill them. An attempt to cross the supernova young lovers passion of “True Romance,” and the visceral, turn-on-a-dime instinctual violence of the ‘Bourne’ series, while this stoner action comedy channels both Quentin Tarantino and Paul Greengrass, it misses the mark by a mile, delivering a phony version of both styles. While it may sound like an entertaining crossbred of genres, it’s really just a hollow hybrid experiment gone horribly wrong.
Written with smug, vulgar zeal by Max Landis (“Chronicle”) and directed with A.D.D.-fueled, amphetamine-driven enthusiasm by Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”), tonally, “American Ultra” provides no insight or substance anywhere, happy to just pour style, arrogant quips and grisly violence on every scene. The movie’s garish and unsubtle tenor recalls every Twitter joke ever made about the first image of Jared Leto as The Joker in “Suicide Squad.” The nasty day-glo, ecstasy propelled flavor of the movie also brings to mind a double fisted Red Bull-chugging Guy Fieri directing a Mountain Dew commercial for the Extreme Sports Channel soundtracked by detestable Prodigy ravers screaming “Smack My Bitch Up.” It is a rare combination of hyper-obnoxiousness and nihilism, and in that regard, it’s sort of something to behold.
“American Ultra” follows the story of Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), two twenty-somethings living the stoner life of Cheetos, bong hits, low expectations, and underachievement. But Phoebe yearns for something more. Even a simple vacation trip is thwarted when Mike succumbs to debilitating anxiety attacks and it soon becomes clear that he is the ineffectual, inept boob of the relationship holding Phoebe back.
But of course, there’s a twist, and more than meets the eye to Mike: he’s actually a sleeper agent for the C.I.A. that suffers from amnesia, while armed with dormant super agent powers. But when reactivated by a rogue CIA field agent (Connie Britton) and provoked into defending himself, Mike instantly leaps into action, remembering every deadly kick, punch and spoon-to-the-jugular offensive move he’s got programmed. From there, “American Ultra” essentially settles into a hyper-kinetic action chase movie groove and rarely wavers. The C.I.A. powers that be (represented by a vile Topher Grace) want to eliminate all traces of their secret agent program, but the morally distressed designer (Britton) is eager to save it. In the meantime, bullets fly, bones are broken with furious glee, and digital blood splatters the screen like confetti in a parade.
“American Ultra” shamelessly lifts all its super solider/C.I.A. elements from the ‘Bourne’ movies as if an adolescent watched those films and started churning out copy in a fit of self-satisfied giggles. It’s one of those movies that exploits casual ultra violence, but with no real consequences, just for the sake of cheap laughs and inventively gruesome ways to kill a foe.
The film’s aggressively cartoonish villains only help amplify the film’s noxious tone. Both Topher Grace and Walton Goggins vie for the worst, most overwrought performances of the year— they make Eddie Redmayne’s over-the-top “Jupiter Ascending” turn look like Oscar bait in comparison. Grace has an amazing facility for playing douchebags and it’s so uncannily good, he should consider getting that looked at. Meanwhile, Goggins portrays a malevolent psychopath called Laffer because he howls hysterically at all the mayhem he unleashes. It’s perhaps the actor/writer’s take on the Joker, but it’s foul and never remotely clever. Acting wise, Eisenberg and Stewart do their best with this third-rate material, but it’s curious why both of them would take suffer through this kind of movie at this stage in their career.
Tonally ugly, only getting worse as it flies forward, “American Ultra” often feels like it was made by the nasty, cackling evil monsters of Joe Dante’s “Gremlins” who delight in destruction, chaos and madness just for the empty fun of it. If the movie brushes upon something interesting for a minute, it’s the notion that drugs and creative ambition can be mutually exclusive, even though the former sometimes informs the latter. And perhaps its one keen observation is how many 20-something selfish, clueless, males often use their girlfriends for multiple roles— lover, mother, nurse, teacher and boss—and how women usually get sick of this position in a relationship. But of course the movie floats both ideas without doing much with them.
Much of the would be comedy in “American Ultra” is derived from putting stoner idiots into extremely perilous, life-threatening situations and watching them accidentally tumble forward to success. And ‘Ultra’ repeats that formula over and over again, but the rarely amusing movie is almost always unpleasant.
The embodiment of style over substance, Nourizadeh’s soulless music video aesthetics attempt to make everything look frenzied and wild, but there’s no point to any of it. One scene is shot with fluorescent black lights for no apparent reason other than it looks pretty cool, man. Worse, there are dated choices everywhere, including a score that sounds like it was pinched from an unfortunate Crystal Method and Korn collaboration from the mid ‘90s “Spawn” soundtrack.
For all its stoner claims, “American Ultra” druggy sensibilities go in another direction; either the halcyon trip nostalgia of MDMA to convey Mike’s romanticized view of Phoebe, the gnarly buzz of dirt baggy cocaine and the schizophrenic chaos of PCP. “American Ultra” hopes to leave you both shellshocked and blissfully stoned, but as a perfect storm of aggressively repulsive choices, it’s a queasy bad trip worth avoiding at all costs. [D-]