Improbable as it may seem, it’s not Jessie Eisenburgs’ transformation from anxiety-stricken stoner to peerless fighting machine that causes American Ultra to stumble. In fact, the choreography of the fight scenes make his activation as covert CIA agent all the more brutal and believable. Where the film falls down is that it succeeds where so many other have failed: it creates a stoner couple who are not only bearable, but actually extremely likeable. Unfortunately, past the midway mark the movie squanders that gift and limps to a total damp squib of a finale.
Eisenburg and girlfriend Kirsten Stewart (who really shows here that she has much more to give beyond Twilight) are introduced to us as a couple that many of us know all too well; too much pot, not enough aspiration, zero hope of ever leaving their small American town. It doesn’t help that Eisenburg’s Mike has crippling panic attacks whenever he attempts to cross the town edges by land or air, a point that very quickly becomes obvious in its relevance. The difference here is that director Nima Nourizadeh takes his time in establishing their close relationship. They are a young couple very much in love, completely accepting of each other’s quirks and failures and genuinely embracing each moment they have together. Max Landis’ script gives them some lovely moments to grow, and it’s a pleasant initial surprise to have a bit of time getting to know what could have been completely superficial protagonists.
Their day-to-day lives are mirrored by unfolding activities in CIA Headquarters, where Topher Grace (still looking improbably young to be playing any kind of adult) and Connie Britton play agents locked in a battle over a secret scheme that quickly transpires to be their duel secret soldier programmes. Britton closed her down when it became clear that its methods were mentally hurting their subjects; Grace’s is still in full swing (using only the best mentally disturbed patients, of course) and he becomes intent in cleaning up the last of the former’s agents. That leads him to Mike’s door, but not before Britton can activate him as a final moment of sympathy.
Cue chaos. Grace’s agent’s weakness is subtlety, or lack thereof, and his approach of using a hammer to smash an egg gives the film a large selection of unhinged baddies for Mike to dispatch with various objects. A large part of the movie’s appeal comes from seeing what he’ll use next to rip open a jugular, and it’s a constant source of amusement. Each failure to kill just one stoner drives Grace crazy with revenge, eventually turning the town into a warzone with the two protagonists in the middle. So far, so good; the burst of action really complements the personal introduction to the couple and the film seems to be relishing in its building momentum.
Unfortunately, though, this is where American Ultra starts to fall apart. An overlong visit to Mike’s dealer’s house (played by John Leguizamo, obviously determined to have as much fun with his ridiculous role as possible) leads to a extended moment of quiet in a blacklit basement and the following short action scene doesn’t do enough to raise the pace back up. This then becomes a recurring factor in the movie; more quiet moments, more secrets revelations (many of which are pretty well telegraphed earlier on), more insular naval gazing as Mike tries to work out who he really is but with not enough momentum to keep the film pushing forward. There needed to be more smaller set-pieces so we could watch Mike grow into his new abilities while he considered his life. It worked so well for Grosse Pointe Blank, and there’s no gas station shootout or house standoff equivalent here to keep the pace up.
As the film slumps its way towards the finale, you start to wish for a Neo-style moment of clarity or John Wick-inspired calm use of weaponry. But neither ever appears. Maybe the director’s choice to film the fights so close is damaging; perhaps Eisenburg needed to be more graceful in his killing movements to show his embrace of his immense powers. Either way, you’re left wanting; the final showdown has a cool single-shot fight against multiple enemies but then, once again, allows the pace to plummet during its couple of ending scenes. Without a moment of final celebration for Mike rising up, beating the bad guys and saving the girl, the credits roll with silence from the crowd instead of excited chatter.
It’s especially disappointing as the film’s first third does such a great job of introducing the protagonists that you think you might be watching something very special, and the initial flurry of action is exciting, but then the film falls into uneven sections filled with too many forced jokes. Without enough standout fight scenes, coupled with overuse of introspection and downtime in a script that missed some great opportunities for genuine creativity, what should have been an enjoyable feel-good blast becomes a slog by the end. That’s not to say this stoner-Bourne concept couldn’t be great; the final scene hints at the couple’s life beyond the events of the film and, with a better judge of narrative and pacing, a sequel might still prove to be the exciting story it initially promised.