The latest film to be called American Something is American Ultra; an action/comedy about a slacker couple (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart) whose burnout lives are turned upside down when he turns out to be a sleeper agent, targeted for assassination by the CIA. Why? Because this is a “stoner” movie, and “stoner” is Hollywood shorthand for “lazy”.
Screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) has blamed the film’s box office failure on a lack of appetite for original ideas. It’s an interesting use of the word “original”, given that the movie shares a premise with 1996 actioner The Long Kiss Goodnight – and that wasn’t exactly clever to begin with; this was the film where Geena Davis realised she was a sleeper agent because she could chop carrots really quickly (why not assume you were a chef?). But at least the Samuel L. Jackson movie was a certain amount of fun; American Ultra is just ultra boring.
Landis combines unfunny stoner comedy with unexciting ultra-violence. Do stoners like ultra-violence? Doesn’t it harsh their mellow? As ill-conceived combinations go, this is up there with the time my uni housemate decided to save time before a night out by drinking a can of Guinness in the shower.
Eisenberg and Stewart do have a degree of slacker charm; this is the kind of bumbling loser role with which he made his name. And the rest of the cast do their best with the uninspired material, including Topher Grace, Connie Britton and Tony Hale, who actually pilots a drone at one point, just like his character in Arrested Development – although that was because he thought it was a video game, and didn’t realise he was actually killing people. If only there was an idea that funny in American Ultra.
Witless, tiresome and incoherent, American Ultra is a chortle-free chore of a movie, whose comedy elements are unfunny and thriller elements unthrilling. Those of us waiting for Topher Grace to do something as good as That ’70s Show will have to wait a little longer.