The line on Jesse Eisenberg at the outset of his career was that he was a clone of Michael Cera, specializing in the sort of sensitive, boy-man roles that Cera had cornered the market on throughout the Aughts. 2009’s Adventureland and Zombieland were the chief catalysts in this conception, and indeed, Eisenberg does channel Cera’s unique blend of sweet-natured anxiousness in those films. But Eisenberg wasted little time casting off that persona, overwriting it entirely with his bravura performance in 2010’s The Social Network. From that point on, Eisenberg came to be defined by his sneering petulance and sense of entitlement. He was the cold, calculating genius who not only wanted to defeat you, but to force you to acknowledge his superiority. He was heralded as a unlikely choice to play Lex Luthor in the upcoming Batman v. Superman, but he’s actually a better fit for the role than many seem willing to concede. Arrogance and megalomania have become Eisenberg’s stocks-in-trade, the most powerful weapons in his arsenal.
One of the innumerable flaws of American Ultra is that it reverts Eisenberg back to Cera-ville. He plays Mike Howell, a meek convenience store clerk with no ambition in life but to smoke weed, draw comics and spend all of his free time with his beloved girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, Eisenberg’s Adventureland leading lady). With his scraggly mane of hair, nervous-Nellie speech pattern and tendency to over-apologize for every little thing, Mike is such a spineless drip that it’s impossible to imagine what any woman could see in him, much less one who seems as comparatively together as Phoebe does. The character is such a delicate flower that it robs Eisenberg of what have become his core strengths as an actor. It’s the sort of thing he’s long since outgrown, and even when he was placed into a similar role in the much stronger action-comedy 30 Minutes or Less, he didn’t come across as limp and defanged as he does here.
The twist with Mike, we quickly learn, is that he was once a top-secret government weapon, created via a now-defunct program to engineer super-soldiers. Mike was the only truly successful result of the program, but rather than put him down after the project was shuttered, Virginia Lasseter (Connie Britton), the mastermind behind it, had his memory wiped and a peaceful life awarded to him. However, when a weaselly up-and-comer named Yates (Topher Grace, doing the sort of smarm routine that people stopped hiring him for a decade ago) revives the program using mentally unstable subjects, he means to wipe out Mike as the last remaining link to the old guard, prompting Lasseter to reactivate her dormant guinea pig to defend himself. From there, Mike becomes a killing machine, though he doesn’t understand how or why. He and Phoebe then find themselves on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of Yates and his squadron of super-psychos.
American Ultra positions itself as a sort of comedic interpretation of The Bourne Identity, with a nebbishy pothead in the Bourne role. There is potentially the germ of a funny idea in here somewhere, but the film fails to pinpoint it. Most of the humor is derived from what a wuss Mike is, but when he swings involuntarily into violent action, it’s just a lot of quick cuts and CGI-assisted flashes of gore, and it’s the same thing each and every time. The comedic potential of the situation is never realized, the disparity existing between Mike’s two sides never contrasted in any genuinely funny way. Even the gore isn’t portrayed as over-the-top enough to elicit any sick humor. The film’s only other means for generating laughter come from Grace’s Yates growing increasingly apoplectic and John Leguizamo as Mike’s ghetto-fabulous supplier of illicit goods. Unfortunately, neither is funny.
The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better. Stewart doesn’t do a lot here to reverse her infamous blankness, even if she does seem to click with Eisenberg more than most other actors with whom she’s shared the screen, and there’s a twist concerning her character midway through that doesn’t logically track with what we were shown up to that point. Britton is saddled with an utterly thankless role and Bill Pullman materializes briefly and to little (zero?) effect. Arrested Development’s Tony Hale pops up in a small part as a government lackey and the only attempt at humor the film sends his way is for him to take a frowny-faced selfie. Most egregious of them all is Walton Goggins, the fantastically charismatic actor from The Shield and Justified, who is completely wasted as a toothless assassin whose sole character traits are that he laughs like a hyena and speaks like Lenny from Of Mice and Men.
Written by Chronicle scribe Max Landis (and between this and Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, it’s turning out to be a bad month for Chronicle alumni), American Ultra is a complete failure at whatever it is it’s attempting to do. As a comedy, an action film, a satire or a provocation, it simply does not work on any level, as though Landis kicked off his shoes after hatching the basic “stoner Bourne” conceit, believing his job to be done. Eisenberg’s backslide into Michael Cera II territory is also unfortunate (though, ironically, had the film cast Cera himself in the role, it might have worked a bit better), but no one plays to their strengths in American Ultra. Their innate talents are left frustratingly unactivated in a project that deserved to be shut down.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.