Genre Mash-Up "American Ultra" Fires Blanks

The second half of August was long thought a lost cause at the domestic box office, marked by excessively air-conditioned auditoriums showing Paul W.S. Anderson movies to empty seats. The August 21, 2009 arrival of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” disemboweled that notion.

What was maybe the best movie of the year parachuted into an assumed dead zone, sucking up dollars and accolades like an F5 tornado. Tarantino’s WWII revenge flick was a blunt force reminder to movie studios that the American popular culture answers to no calendar.

Six years later, “American Ultra” limps into theaters as a striking reminder of what used to be, here to reclaim late August for the also-rans.

Apart from the movie having no clear idea what it is or who it’s for, it’s remarkably cheap-looking for a picture led by two legitimate stars. Kristen Stewart (“Twilight”) and Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network”) star as a wayward stoner couple caught up in a government conspiracy – one that feels far less cinematic than it should.

The world of “American Ultra” seems cordoned off from reality, not by design but by obvious budgetary limitations. From an inexplicable lack of extras (do the characters live in a ghost town?) to bad sound effects work (pew-pew!) to some exceptionally ugly digital photography, it all marks the worst kind of movie paradox – a film that needed more money to get made properly but maybe shouldn’t have been made in the first place.

Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is the ineffectual-manbaby-but-secretly-a-hero archetype that Hollywood has been pushing for decades now, a nebbishy pothead with a beautiful girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart). It’s understandable that both would be underwritten to serve as avatars for the presumed target audience of millennials, but they’re too underwritten to be interesting to anyone else. When Mike is revealed to be an unwitting sleeper agent (a la Jason Bourne), it renders the forgettable characterization of the leads even more unmemorable.

Here’s the thing, though. No matter how tired, this dynamic has worked plenty of times before – even with these exact same actors! Eisenberg and Stewart made a lovely lead couple in 2009’s “Adventureland,” a rom-com that was plagued by some of the same problems of passivity as “American Ultra” but worked anyway.

No, the issues here are more deep-seated than its leads or the way they’re written by screenwriter Max Landis (“Chronicle”). Even if they’re career-worst performances – and they might be – for all intents and purposes, Eisenberg and Stewart are fine.

It’s the presentation of the story that drowns “American Ultra.”

There’s no way to tell if Landis is responsible for the way the story unravels – it tips its hand immediately, removing what little suspense the ad campaign left intact – but one thing is clear: Nima Nourizadeh’s on-the-nose direction is a ghastly fit. The “Project X” filmmaker consistently allows his actors to deliver Landis’ (intentionally?) dumbshit dialogue without a hint of irony, underlining it all with an alt-rock score that’s as enjoyable as an elbow to the temple.

That the script induces tonal motion sickness is understood – Landis is doing a genre mash-up, after all – but Nourizadeh seems completely tone deaf. He plays the screenplay’s chaos all at full volume, marrying major keys to minor while doing neither well. The jokes don’t hit, the visuals are muddled, and the enumerable exchanges between Connie Britton’s heroic CIA agent (an uncertain performance) and Topher Grace as her bloodthirsty boss (a terrible performance) stand as symbols of the pic’s immutable clutter. Neither performer is on the same page. Sometimes it seems like they aren’t in the same movie.

The extreme violence isn’t as off-putting as it is shrug-worthy. Since we’re just as confused about the characters’ identities as they are, attachment is difficult, making the incessant threat of bloodletting more curious than nerve-wracking. A few deaths are well-executed but feel tacked-on, as if to make up for a lack of drama.

“American Ultra” improbably has more gore and fewer laughs than “American Sniper,” a distinction that makes it sound a lot more compelling that it is. Apart from a few moments of gratuitous violence, it’s absolutely inoffensive and mild-mannered, certain to outrage no one. If you’re going to bother making a movie as jumbled as this, at least have the common courtesy to ruffle a feather or two in the process.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: August 21, 2015
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenwriters: Max Landis
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Briton, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content)