1330275587697400208By Kyle G. KingThis past Saturday afternoon, screenwriter Max Landis took to Twitter to rant about why his latest film American Ultra finished at the lower end at the box office. In a (not so unusual) week crammed with sequels, reboots, and a biopic, Landis pondered: “Is trying to make original movies just not a career path anymore? Are original ideas over?” American Ultra, a somewhat amusing dash down the stoner rabbit hole, ultimately fails to calibrate its action-comedy in a way that produces anything that could be confused as wholly original (at least, in that pesky Webster’s dictionary kind of way).

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives the life typical of a high school friend who ended up staying at home: he works a dead end job to support his weed and flannel habit, but this particular burnout is totally content with his low-key life, due in great part to the devoted relationship between him and his long-time, live-in girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Mike’s life quickly jumps from low-key to high-key when his dormant CIA training is activated by his former trainer (Connie Britton playing CIA operative). Lasseter learns that her “Wise Guy” program (Mike being the only working component) is being officially wiped clean by newly instated CIA head honcho Adrian Yates (Topher Grace, thinking he’s Samuel L. Jackson), who engages his opposing “Tough Guy” program to hunt down this newly realized stone(d) cold killer.

This particular high-concept stoner comedy isn’t completely original, but Landis and director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) lend a raw, revitalized energy to the more slapstick elements it borrows from the far too similar Pineapple Express. Well-choreographed set pieces distinguish American Ultra as an authentic action flick, and Eisenberg’s stoner persona shrewdly subverts the exhausted “Bourne” trope, as Mike’s swift CIA instincts constantly save him from his dolt stoner instincts. (He wonders, “Something very weird is happening to me. I keep killing people! There’s a chance I may be… a robot!“) Eisenberg and Stewart are both entertaining to watch and seem tailored to their parts, but nothing fun or important beyond what you caught in the trailer ever shakes loose. The film’s stakes are otherwise left up in smoke.


Since the movie is mostly served as flashback (it begins with Mike beat up in handcuffs), the fear of him actually being killed is never real, yet the fun of seeing him get beat up is never truly exploited. Given that his job sees next to no customers, he has plenty of time to work on his comic ‘Apollo Ape’: a silly-crazy world of astronaut monkeys that Mike and Phoebe both regard as a stroke of genius. But American Ultra fails to maximize that vision of silly-crazy-genius on screen; by the time American Ultra even touches the Apollo Ape madness, we’re well into the closing credits.

What anchors a lot of the movie is the credible relationship between Mike and Phoebe. Aided in large part by Eisenberg and Stewart’s lived-in chemistry (and their similar brand of alt-sagacity), Landis and Nourizadeh need but one big scene and a few smaller moments to establish the heart of their movie. The same generosity is given to some supporting faces in CIA colleague Petey (Tony Hale in far too good of a dramatic performance) and Tough Guy Mike (the always under-appreciated Walton Goggins ). John Leguizamo also stars as Rose, the local drug dealer-crime lord who sells Mike a box of fireworks that he uses for the climax of a fight scene.

The term “popcorn movie” has never been more appropriate, both in American Ultra’s mish-mashed content and its munchie-massed demographic. The movie’s good for a weekend hit, but it’s one that will truly suffer from cinematic short-term memory loss.