|'Landis' story rides upon its basic concept from beginning to end without ever really knowing what to do with it or where to take it'.|
Imagine a Bourne film remade as a stoner comedy, and you've reached the starting point for what American Ultra has to offer. Unfortunately, you've also arrived at the film's one and only idea, which director Nima Nourizadeh bats around for over an hour and a half without ever taking matters from this starting point on to anything else.
Screenwriter Max Landis struggles to make American Ultra satisfying as an entry into either genre he aims for. The humour feels too sparsely scattered throughout to make this an effective comedy, with the film failing to offer any laugh-out-loud moments. In terms of action, whilst there are some well-executed early fight sequences, Nourizadeh steadily falls further and further into the misguided school of thought that more shooting and explosions equals more entertainment. Tonally, American Ultra never finds a comfortable space between its two genres, the action and comedy elements more often uncomfortably clashing with each other than providing the offbeat style Nourizadeh is presumably hoping to achieve.
Pothead couple Max (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) initially at least provide an amusing and likeable presence for the film to gravitate around. The fact that neither character is developed beyond the basics becomes more and more problematic, however, as Nourizadeh increasingly expects us to care about his protagonists without ever providing much of a reason to do so. Whilst the chemistry that Eisenberg and Stewart shared in 2009's Adventureland is occasionally evident in American Ultra, it's never enough to lift the uninspired material surrounding the pair.
Far more problematic are the film's supporting players. Drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo) never feels fleshed out enough to make any impact before unceremoniously disappearing from the narrative, whilst Walton Goggins' mentally unhinged assassin exemplifies the tonal mess felt throughout. The greatest offenders are the CIA, however, with Nourizadeh unable to decide whether to make the organisation sleek and subtle adversaries à la the Bourne franchise, dangerous and shadowy men in black out of a John le Carré novel, or cartoon villains with more firepower than brain cells. In the end he opts for an unsatisfying mishmash of all three, eventually allowing the third of these to win out during the final act seemingly because it's the easiest option.
For all the issues in its execution, the biggest failing with American Ultra is that it simply has nothing fresh to offer. Landis' story rides upon its basic concept from beginning to end without ever really knowing what to do with it or where to take it. Although Nourizadeh's direction lacks any real flair of its own, in fairness the director is never given much to work with in the first place.