“AMERICAN ULTRA” WRITTEN, by Max Landis (John’s son) and directed by Nima Nourizadeh (a British Iranian), is a confused, blood-drenched, humorless little movie. From the trailers, it seemed like a cliched but funny enough premise: a stoned, sleeper agent is activated, and, much to his surprise turns out to be a highly trained lethal weapon. Call it a pastiche of “Bourne Identity” meets “The Long Kiss Goodnight”.
But by reel two (to use an antiquated reference point) the comic vein dries up. Landis is a very young (he’s only 30), but prolific writer and he just didn’t have the experience or nous to sustain this one trick pony of an idea for the entire 90 minute journey of the film. So, in a movie that seems to have been written even as it was being shot, he segued away from absurdist humor to what feels like an homage to Robert Rodriguez in his “Machete” phase. It’s not a successful genre mash-up.
Alas, neither the nerdy charm of Jessie Eisenberg nor the low-keyed sparkle of Kristen Stewart, manage to rescue this farrago. Jessie has already settled into a cinematic ‘type’ and here he lives up to his own cliché of the bumbling nerd. He’s not alone. Tony Hale, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ fawning, effeminate bag-man from “Veep” phones in his own cliche in a role as a fawning effeminate drone operator. Poor Kristen: she had the hardest job. With no character type to fall back on, she tries valiantly to make something of her underwritten mish-mash role – of loving supporter, come CIA operative.
In the end, “American Ultra” feels like something concocted after the pleasures of a large bong and directed while still stoned, with the ghost of Wes Craven hovering around and screaming for more blood, more spilt guts and more explosions to pump up the excitement. What started out as an ephemeral evening’s entertainment has clearly morphed into some crazed producer’s wannabe franchise with the new (and totally unconvincing) badass Jessie. Call him Jessie Stratham.
But perhaps there’s a bigger idea hiding here. Maybe someone should turn this ” amnesiac is really a trained killer” trope on its head. How about the trained killer that turns out to be an estate agent. Maybe from Foxtons. Or maybe there’s really no difference there.
Whatever. Give this one a miss