‘American Ultra’ is just middling entertainment
This publication will gladly review any new theatrical release in the “stoner action comedy” genre, so we were naturally intrigued by Jesse Eisenberg’s new vehicle American Ultra.
Loosely inspired by the CIA’s Project MKUltra — when spooks dosed unsuspecting bar patrons with LSD as part of a series of mind-control experiments in 1950s — but probably more inspired by someone’s desire to see a kung fu version of Flowers for Algernon, American Ultra will surely make for a lovely, lazy stay-at-home Netflix night this spring.
As something that merits the effort of going to a theater to see now — not so much.
Some action movies get bogged down at the end with too many explosion scenes. American Ultra hits that point about 17 minutes in. But its narrative keeps unwrapping new elements, introducing plot points that explain previous plot holes, and the film is paced well with inventive second and third acts.
Shifting between a comedy and a combat flick, American Ultra is the story of a small-town West Virginia wake-and-baker who finds himself caught up in a top-secret government mind-control experiment gone awry. Unwittingly in possession of superhuman fighting and strategy skills, our heroic stoner is pursued by lethal CIA agents who succeed at precisely the same rate as CIA agents in the Bourne movies. This continues for 96 minutes.
Eisenberg does play the, ahem, “cannabis enthusiast” with more range and nuance than anyone has in years. Kristen Stewart displays her engaging, detached charm as his girlfriend. They are both nice-looking and they carry the film, but these two couldn’t find romantic chemistry at a Kink.com Armory party.
An impressive supporting cast is completely wasted, and not in the good way. Tony Hale, who was always so funny on “Arrested Development,” cannot get a laugh in this film. Walton Goggins (“Sons of Anarchy”) fails terribly at playing a scary villain. The feeling is that they could have just riffed and been better than the script.
There isn’t much marijuana humor in this film, either. It’s got some funny moments for a shoot-em-up movie, but they’re not cannabis jokes. We see Eisenberg take a couple of puffs, and other characters routinely chide his marijuana use.
But ultimately, American Ultra is a generic action comedy. It does not really belong in the pantheon of “stoner films,” such as stock examples like Harold and Kumar or sneaky surprises like Cabin in the Woods.
American Ultra is not a terrible film, but it does not particularly succeed at the action, comedy, drama or romance genres it tries to blend. The real mind-control experiment here might be seeing if you can remember anything about this movie a week after seeing it.