Part of the reason I started writing film reviews is because I recently got a job at a movie theater, and have been allowed to see at least one free movie a week. After seeing this movie, I'm very glad I didn't have to pay to see it.
Director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis' American Ultra promises a lot as this fusion of action, romance, and stoner comedy, but delivers weakly on each aspect. There's weed in it, but there's no real identity with "weed culture." There's action in it, but it looks fake. There's romance in it, but it's very troubled and distracts from whatever point this film is trying to make.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a neurotic, small town stoner who is awakened as a sleeper agent after a government ladder climber (Topher Grace) attempts to have him assassinated, and his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), stays by him every step of the way. In print, it sounds like a hilarious, fantastic idea with a lot of potential for humor, charm, and personality. Instead, we get almost none of that.
The biggest flaw this movie is probably its characters. While Eisenberg and Stewart show some pretty genuine chemistry, there are a lot of side characters with no real draw or interest, such as Howell's drug dealer, Rose, and the CIA department head who shows up at just enough times in the movie to be confusing about his motives. The worst character though, hands down, is Topher Grace as Yates. I don't know if having Eric Forman from That 70s Show as the main antagonist of the film was supposed to make it funny, but it didn't work. His typical performance is just as awkward and Forman-esque as ever, and it further muddies the overall tone this film is trying to have.
Some of the cinematography in this film is actually pretty great, except for the quick-cut fighting shots that modern action films seem to love so much as a means of making choreography seem cooler and more believable than it is. I won't lie though, seeing Jesse Eisenberg come up with quick, Jason Bourne-style solutions and makeshift weapons while fighting a swarm of armed agents is pretty awesome, but provides another glaring problem: we never find out what actually happened to Mike Howell. All that is said is he was an "experiment" and had his memory wiped, but his enhanced reflexes and advanced military knowledge are never detailed. You could make the argument that these are unnecessary details and that we get the gist of it just from watching Howell in action, but if you're going to set aside the time to explain things, then actually explain them.
Pros: there's a few laughs, a few cool fights and explosions, and the chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart is decently involving, even heartwarming at times.
Cons: it tries to do so much all at once without developing a clear personality or identity. The stakes don't feel that high, and having as silly of an antagonist as Topher Grace makes it unclear if they even should be. Ultimately, nothing that happens makes you hopeful that it gets resolved, or even care if it doesn't by the end, because that is kind of unclear as well.
This is a movie that I'm glad exists because it tried something different, even if it didn't really work. However, if its lack of critical merit or box office sales reflect poorly on adventurous filmmaking in general in the future, then American Ultra is more of a hindrance than anything else.