One of the more annoying movie trends has been to slap the word “American” on the front of titles. Just in recent years we've seen American Sniper, American Hustle and, simply, The American. Yes, the qualifier can be an easy way to impart what to expect from a movie, but can also be overly reductive and lazy.
The latest to try it out is American Ultra, which needs all the help it can get in attracting attention. Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a stoner convenience store clerk who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Unbeknownst to him, he is also a highly trained CIA agent, part of a group nicknamed Ultra, who had been deprogrammed when he proved to be a liability.
When powers-that-be decide they need to eliminate him once and for all, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), his one-time handler, tries to save his life by activating him again. This sets in motion a series of assassination attempts, each of which Mike is unwittingly able to thwart because of skills he didn’t even know he had.
As is often the case in films like this, whether the story succeeds or not comes down to tone. As directed by Nima Nourizadeh and written by Max Landis (son of John), it’s obvious that the filmmakers want to try to play both sides of the aisle. They want to emphasize the comedic aspects of a Mike being a stoner while also making it feel like a real action movie, two aspects that don’t always go together.
Unfortunately, that’s the case here. The funny scenes are genuinely funny, but they tend to get blunted by the extreme violence the film puts on display. Subtlety can go a long way, and Nourizadeh and Landis would have been better served by dialing down on the gore in order to let the absurdity of Mike’s situation shine through.
Instead, they go in the opposite direction, a decision that’s questionable not only because it messes up the tone of the film, but also because the story just can’t support it. There’s little-to-no attempt to give any of the characters depth, so every single one of them is a walking stereotype. You can’t care about what the characters do if you don’t care about them in the first place.
Perhaps most frustrating is that a good cast is put to waste. Eisenberg and Stewart have both impressed in recent roles, but even though they have some interesting moments, they’re not enough to sustain their roles overall. Britton, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Topher Grace, John Leguizamo and Walton Goggins each deserve a lot better than what they got here.
The use of the word “American” in American Ultra makes almost as much sense as the story itself, which is to say none at all. Using it as a way to mask poor storytelling is even worse; don’t be tricked.