Review: “American Ultra”

The epitome of the failed genre mash-up, “American Ultra” probably played better on paper than it does on the screen. The idea is sound – stoners turn out to be super-agents and wackiness ensues – but the passion is so lacking and the execution so slack that it feels like everyone involved wanted to be somewhere else. Worse, it’s missing the go-for-broke gleeful excess needed to sell such a flick. That last detail is disappointing, considering the movie is directed by Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) from a script by Max Landis (“Chronicle”), both of whom made promising indie debut.

The stilted chemistry between co-stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart doesn’t help, either. He plays Mike, a neurotic nowhere-bound convenience store clerk in small-town West Virginia; she’s his equally aimless girlfriend, Phoebe. Mike is so phobic that he literally can’t leave town; their attempt to fly to Hawaii for a vacation ends with him charfing his guts up in the airport men’s room.

Unbeknownst to Mike, he’s actually a Ludlum-esque sleeper assassin oblivious to his true identity, part of a covert super-assassin program. The truth comes out when he’s targeted for termination by ambitious CIA desk jockey Yates (Topher Grace) with a rival program. Mike’s ‘creator’, Victoria (Connie Britton), activates him in order to save his life; five years-worth of waking and baking results in his skills coming online but not his memories. Sporadically amusing hijinks and thrill-less action sequences ensue.

It’s a movie without a strong central core, one too earnest to be a comedy and too flippant for an action film. It’s missing the giddy sense of anarchy that made the likes of Kick-Ass and Tropic Thunder work. Nourizadeh can’t maintain a consistent pace, and its 94-minute running time feels like a three-hour slog punctuated with bursts of non-cathartic violence. (A single-take sequence in a grocery store hints at what might have been, however.)

That it doesn’t completely sink without a trace is due at least in part to borderline cartoony turns by John Leguizamo as Mike’s loopy pot and illegal fireworks dealer, and Walton Goggins as Yates’ thoroughly unhinged hired killer. They seem to be the only ones who realize the movie was meant to be a farce.