Those who enjoy the recreational use of marijuana — stoners, as they are commonly known — are often thought to be a listless, inactive bunch. Mellow, one could say. Which makes the idea of a high-energy action film centered on some stoners seem, while not without precedent, funny.
The notion of “American Ultra” as a freewheeling stoner-centric action/espionage comedy with two of the sharpest young stars of the day seems pretty much a no-brainer. The bummer of the movie turns out to be that it was made with little brains at all. It turns out to be a disappointingly underdeveloped film that its makers, chiefly director Nima Nourizadeh and writer Max Landis, must have thought could coast by on a cool but half-baked idea. Whatever. Close enough.
The story revolves around the characters of Mike Howell and Phoebe Larson, played by Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, two of the brightest and most compelling young performers working in and around Hollywood. Stewart and Eisenberg are both capable of conveying intelligence, emotion and inner life. The duo previously appeared together in “Adventureland,” Greg Mottola’s sweet, understated 2009 comedy and a film that put them both to better use. Some of that movie’s best moments are the two of them together, gently stoned, talking and just hanging out.
“American Ultra” is set chiefly in a small town in West Virginia where Mike works in a convenience store and Phoebe answers phones at a bail bonds place. They are quite genuinely stuck there as he suffers from crippling anxiety attacks whenever they try to go anywhere else.
One day, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) arrives, unbeknownst to Mike as his former CIA handler and the person who oversaw a secret government program of which he is the last surviving member, one that made him a super-agent in waiting. Lasseter’s program was surpassed by one overseen by the smarmy, ambitious Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), who will stop at nothing to have Mike killed, deploying excessive government resources and firepower to do so. Knowing the relentless cruelty of Yates, on her own Lasseter activates Mike’s abilities, and soon a battle has begun.
Once Mike is activated as a sleeper agent the film largely dispenses with being much of a stoner comedy and shifts into a pretty straightforward on-the-run action picture. Whether Mike’s years of copious weed intake in any way impacted his neurological training is unexplored, even as he grapples to understand what’s happening to him.
Also, the idea of a stoner’s inherent paranoia, although it may soon be a thing of the past because of changing drug laws across the country, isn’t used for much. If you’re constantly nervous that everyone is looking at you suspiciously, imagine discovering everyone is in fact after you.
Stewart and Eisenberg seem to be enjoying themselves well enough, playing off their sometimes sleepy on-screen personas, but as the film becomes more conventional their performances by and large do as well. After his first fight, in which he kills two men without realizing quite how he did it, Eisenberg hilariously tries to hide behind a pole and then nervously prance-walks his way across a parking lot. It’s the sort of eccentric move that is missing as the story goes along.
Walton Goggins plays the film’s chief henchman, a weird psycho given to disturbing laughing fits — and it is the movie’s idea of wit that his character be named Laugher. John Leguizamo plays Rose, Mike’s drug dealer and friend — that line can sometimes be blurry — and the veteran character actor is expected to fill in the underwritten role with an out-there look and wacky ticks.
Nourizadeh previously made the raw, riotous teen party movie “Project X,” but there is little of that film’s energy here. Landis created the teen-focused superhero story “Chronicle” but is arguably now as well known for his brash social media persona as for his screenplays. The action set-pieces and the comedic character scenes in the film seem to be taking turns and are rarely brought together in a meaningful way. While the story’s smoke-filled lungs would presumably be powered by an anti-authoritarian heart, that turns out to be asking too much.
A dramatic moment for Laugher seems cut-and-pasted from another story. A sequence in Rose’s drug den/sex playroom shot in psychedelic black-light day-glo feels like a lift from better-done sequences in “Spring Breakers” or “Neighbors” and an attempt to paper over the movie’s deficiencies of story and action. A standoff finale that combines machine-gun laser-sights, helicopter spotlights and an emotional turn finally captures the sort of disorienting, hallucinatory feel very much lacking in the rest of the film.
It is unfair, of course, to judge a movie in relation to its marketing, but in the case of “American Ultra” it is actually instructive. The movie being sold to audiences is bold and lively, the movie showing in theaters is something inert, needlessly mean, more harshly violent than funny and largely a waste of its two young stars.
“American Ultra” could be goofier and crazier, both smarter and dopier than it turned out. (As well as in need of better drug jokes.) The movie winds up like a crummy bag of weed that looks better than it is and brings more of a woozy headache than a true high.
Rated: R, for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: In wide release