The word is in the title of this review for a reason. It’s the best way to describe American Ultra, the stoner-action flick starring Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Kristin Stewart (any movie involving the word Twilight) and the insanely sexy and talented mother figure for every kid in Dillon, Texas, Connie Britton.
It’s not a great movie. It’s not a terrible movie. It falls somewhere squarely in the middle, because it takes a little too long to get going, but once it does, it’s kind of fun.
The movie is about Mike (Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Stewart). They’re a couple of kids that are crazy in love with both each other and getting high. They live in a small West Virginia town that they can never leave, because of Mike’s panic attacks.
One day Lassiter (Britton) is sitting in her office at CIA headquarters when she receives a phone call telling her that Mike, an asset she trained and experimented on years ago, is about to be killed. The thing is, Mike has no idea of this. Not only is he oblivious to the fact that Topher Grace (Yeah, the kid from That 70s Show) wants him dead. He is also has no clue that he is a highly trained killer.
Let’s back up for a second and talk about Grace’s casting. I assume it happened after a conversation that went a little bit like this:
“You know who should play the bad guy? Topher Grace.”
“From That 70s Show? That Topher Grace?”
“Yeah. He’s smarmy and has the entitled look of an 80s movie villain about him.”
“Didn’t he play a bad guy in one of the Spider-Man movies?”
“Yeah. He was Venom in Spider-Man 3.”
“All those movies sucked.”
“No, those Spider-Man movies were good.”
“Then why do I remember hating Topher Grace in that movie?”
“Because that particular Spider-Man movie was horrendous, but that series of Spider-Man movies was better than the two with the other kid from The Social Network.”
“Oh. So Topher Grace sucks at playing a bad guy and you want to cast him as a bad guy in our movie?”
“Well, I think he’s bottomed out pretty solidly. He’s got nowhere to go but up.”
“I don’t know.”
“Look, can you just sign this and fax it to Topher’s agent so I can get out of here and go do cocaine and have sex with an intern?”
Alright, so you understand the plot of American Ultra.
The film’s problems all stem from the fact that it’s not overly interesting as a comedy. That’s partly the fault of its insanely boring leads. Remember when Jesse Eisenberg was just the guy you called when Michael Cera said “no”? How did we get to the point where that guy is considered a reliable and compelling comedic actor?
There are certainly interesting and funny moments, but if the goal of American Ultra is to be the world’s first stoner-action movie, the comedy can derail that at times. Come to think of it, I actually didn’t really laugh at anything in the movie until the action started.
It is fun to see this mild mannered doofus try to reason with a guy that wants to stab him only to realize that somewhere locked away in Mike’s brain is a mastery of hand-to-hand combat. There are also a lot of fun twists in the plot that make you question who to root for when it comes to Mike’s few allies.
The best thing about the movie is its secondary villain. Topher Grace dispatches a lunatic named Laugher to commit any physical acts of violence necessary to catch Mike. Laugher is part of another secret CIA program that trained prisoners in the psych ward to work for Uncle Sam. I suppose the thinking here is he’s the guy to take down Mike because Psychopaths > Potheads.
Laugher is played by the excellent character actor (and fellow Alabamian) Walter Goggins (Justified), and Goggins is perfect in the role. He’s not terrifying, but he is scary. His laugh is haunting. His appearance after Mike knocks out his teeth is creepy. This is the perfect villain for this film.
I tend to have very little patience for stoner films. I never liked any of the Cheech and Chong movies or Pineapple Express or other movies of the like. I have no beef with pot. I think the stuff should be legal. It’s just that when you write a script to appeal to potheads, you’ve set the bar for comedy so low and so specifically targeted. There’s no way a smart and discerning person can ever claim to have enjoyed any stoner movie while sober.
This is a fun and original movie though, once the action plot gets rolling. My problems are 1) it takes a little too long to get to that point and 2) sometimes the action scenes rely too heavily on ridiculous gore and blood. It’s like Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) got a bonus based on the amount of Karo syrup and food coloring he used. Raunchy gore is funny until it becomes such an integral part of your movie that the audience starts checking their watches during what are supposed to be “outrageous” kill scenes.
MY GRADE: B-