“American Ultra” Review

American Ultra is a hyperviolent and marijuana infused action film written by the stoner (assumed) nerd who brought us Chronicle and directed by the dude who did Project X. You know, that terrible, soulless party movie. This entire movie basically takes place in an alternate universe of NBC’s Chuck around the time season 2 kicks off.

American Ultra is the crass, drug-filled long haired dirty cousin of Chuck, in which an otherwise harmless dude is transformed into a valuable government asset. But whereas the lovable Zachary Levi instantly charms you with his unassuming nature and genuine heart, Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a stoner who’s brain was hijacked after he got caught dropping acid at the age of 18. Nice!

Howell has all sorts of skills and knowledge programmed into his head, but had his memory wiped and is under a kind of witness protection. Somebody from the CIA arrives in town with the plan of taking him out. But before that happens, someone else comes in and “reactivates” Agent Howell. What ensues is 95 minutes of action occurring around and at people we never quite come to care about. Except for John Leguizamo and Huell Babineaux, but they both have startlingly little screen time.

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Rep in nerd culture is retroactively determined by what you were “really into” as a kid, as if your taste two decades ago dictates some kind of contemporary expertise in the subject matter. I’m the guy people go to with X-Men related questions (it was my absolute favorite), but a close second in my childhood nerddom would definitely be Spider-Man. And let me tell you: for little Corey, the Symbiotes were the stuff of nightmares. Carnage and Venom were demons.

But as a young adult, I have never been less afraid than I was seeing Topher Grace — of all people — cast as Venom in Spider-Man 3. It’s a film we all love to hate on objectively, even when we can’t remember a specific bad thing other than some weird dance routine. Don’t get me wrong: the guy was solid in That ’70s Show as the lead, perfectly serviceable. But for much of his big picture career, not much outside of Take Me Home Tonight lands well. In American Ultra, he plays Adrian Yates, the power-crazed poop stain that butt-kissed his way into some kind of authority in the CIA (side bar: is it me or did every movie used to focus on the FBI and now it’s the CIA?), and now wants Howell dead. Grace has some funny lines, but his lack of likability is something that prevails across the movie and all its characters.

Initially, crippling anxiety renders Mike unable to leave town, which should make it easy for Yates, especially when Yates has a small platoon of similarly programmed basket cases on his side. Kristen Stewart is opposite Mike as his girlfriend Phoebe Larson. Mike self-describes their relationship as the “perfectly fucked up couple”. She’s perfect. He’s the fucked up one. Awwwww.

Over at the CIA, we meet Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), and learn about her failed Wise Man program. Basically, they tried to train sleeper agents with all sorts of skills and knowledge, but Howell was the only success, so the program was shut down and Howell put into hiding. But now, Topher Grace’s Yates has a competing program in place called Tough Guy with his primary goal being eliminating the last loose end: killing Mike Howell.

The President from Independence Day, actor Bill Pullman, makes an appearance as some sort of higher up, but he gets about 60 total seconds of nebulous screen time and we never learn who he is.

The more I think about it, the movie is kind of a mess, and with all the drugs flying about everywhere along with gratuitous action, it’s hard to find anything redeemable. And it doesn’t help that the two lead actors don’t really have enough charisma to keep things going. If you question the worth of such a notion, just think about When Harry Met Sally…. The plot of the movie is mediocre at best, but the individual charisma and paired chemistry of Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan elevate the film to one of the best rom coms ever.

This pair starred opposite one another in 2012’s Adventureland, a bit of a low-profile indie flick that is honestly pretty spectacular in a lot of ways. Eisenberg is an incredibly potent actor, but only when cast in a good role for him. He’s great in Adventureland, where he’s typecast as a brilliant and frustrated high school graduate struggling to make money at a crummy summer job to afford college (it takes place in the ’80s, when such a pipe dream was still possible).

He’s also wonderful in The Education of Charlie Banks, where he plays an identical kind of character already in college who has to make enough mistakes to fully comprehend twain’s cryptic message “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

And lastly, he was obviously phenomenal in The Social Network, where he played the brilliant innovator and total jerkface Mark Zuckerberg. Even though his Adventureland character is one bong purchase and six months of hair growth away from being Mike Howell in American Ultra, there’s just something a little too ludicrous in Ultra‘s premise.

I genuinely enjoy Eisenberg as an actor, but it just seems odd to me to see him cast as a bit of a badass. He handles everything well from a technical standpoint, but he lacks a certain kind of je ne sais quoi that somebody like Zac Levi can bring to a similar kind of role. In fact, American Ultra‘s greatest flaw is that literally none of its characters bring any likability to the table, with the exception of Leguizamo as Howell’s cocaine ripping, inked out drug dealer (the cool, fun kind; not the scary kind). Eisenberg and Stewart are called “charisma black holes” by some. Connie Britton doesn’t scream likability either and often comes across as super-serious. Buster (Tony Hale) is always a sight for sore eyes, but ironically enough is the way too silly foil to Britton’s serious Agent Lasseter.

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I love Adventureland and Chuck quite dearly, so I had high hopes for this film. But I only recently realized who the writer and director were on this, and I blame them both for the ultimate disappointment that is American Ultra. Honestly? You wouldn’t be wrong to skip this movie altogether. Even if you were interested to begin with, skip out on seeing it in theaters. When it shows up on Netflix simultaneously with its DVD release (as oppressively mediocre films are want to do), maybe give it a shot then.