With a title that evokes the vague allure of an off-brand cigarette, “American Ultra” pushes a worn premise with slightly different packaging.
It’s another “clueless innocent becomes a killing machine” riff, a la “The Bourne Identity” or “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” Only instead of a sheltered high-schooler (“Hanna”) or an ordinary office worker (“Wanted”) unleashing dormant assassin skills, the hero of this forgettable movie turns out to be an apathetic stoner.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike, a frequently arrested pothead who works the night shift at a Cash-N-Carry convenience store. Panic attacks have kept him from leaving the confines of his tiny West Virginia town, although he was hoping to take longtime girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) to Hawaii. He might even propose to her if the moment proves right.
But some suits at the CIA hope he never leaves. Turns out Mike is the last holdover from the aborted Ultra program run by Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton). Now she has a smarmy new boss (Topher Grace), who’s backing his own program and “clearing the portfolio” of past failures. In layman’s terms, he’s sending a lethal goon squad to eliminate Mike.
They have no clue what they’re up against. Nor does Mike.
“What if I’m a robot?” he asks while trying to sort out why he’s suddenly so versed in bloodshed.
“American Ultra” strives to be both a slacker comedy and hyper-violent action thriller. It’s neither funny nor thrilling enough to anchor either genre. And the graphic gore gets oppressive.
Some momentum would have helped. It’s one thing to focus on a druggy loser and another to give him nothing to do. Mike simply goes about his day, stocking shelves and creating Apollo Ape comics in a little journal. He doesn’t make things happen; he just reacts when things happen to him.
Even Jeff Bridges’ Dude in “The Big Lebowski” becomes driven by a quest to retrieve his stolen rug.
Director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) and writer Max Landis (“Chronicle”) evidently concocted a premise amusing enough to attract high-profile talent. But the stars prove sedentary.
Stewart can be effective when given a restless role — “Still Alice” comes to mind. She can also come across as deadly dull, especially when playing this all-too-accommodating girlfriend. (Is there anyone miscast as often as the “Twilight” actress?)
Other than Michael Cera, no one is more ill-suited to playing a convincing CIA hatchet man than Eisenberg. The “Zombieland,” “Social Network” and “End of the Tour” star has crafted a fine career playing too-smart-for-the-room nerds. That’s apparently part of the joke of outfitting this mousy actor with stringy hair and Phish concert wardrobe. So is the fact that he dispatches bad guys with whatever innocuous item is nearest, from Ramen noodles to a dustpan.
“American Ultra” actually builds to a bravura punch line and clever coda. If only it hadn’t wasted so many opportunities along the way, preferring to deal with potentially interesting characters — a browbeating sheriff (Stuart Greer) and a wannabe gangster (the reliable John Leguizamo) — via a hail of bullets. Other promising setups such as a garish, black light-illuminated hideout and the whole Apollo Ape thing are abandoned with no payoff. It’s as if the filmmakers forgot these things were introduced.
Yep, kind of like a stoner would.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R | Time: 1:35