In a summer film slate awash with reboots, sequels and dutifully box-checking superhero product, it’s refreshing to see a genre film made from a completely original screenplay. Yet “American Ultra,” a stoner action-comedy directed by Nima Nourizadeh from a script by Max Landis, too often plays like an earnest yet unsatisfying adaptation of a cult graphic novel, with most of the charm lost in translation. Full of clever ideas, bloody violence so cartoonish that it’s almost cuddly, and an eminently likable leading pair in Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, the film has a lot going for it but, like a fridge-clearing omelet prepared after too many bong hits, it can’t manage to cook all these goodies into a palatable whole. Box office should be modest, though more couch-bound demographics may well embrace it on homevid.
For a well-meaning, not-so-bright stoner who works at a run-down mini-mart and can’t leave his West Virginia hometown without suffering panic attacks, Mike Howell (Eisenberg) is rather content with his lot in life. He lives in a rainbow-shag-carpeted house with his beloved Phoebe (Stewart, looking completely at home with stringy hair and a faded violet dye job), who doesn’t seem to mind functioning as Mike’s “girlfriend, mother, maid and landlord,” in the words of an uncomprehending local sheriff. His comicbook concept, Apollo Ape, seems like it could be a winner if only he would take the time to actually write it. He’s even somehow scrounged up enough dough to buy Phoebe an engagement ring, though the opportunity to pop the question keeps comically eluding him.
Nourizadeh does well to build up the loose, ambling rhythms of Mike’s life in the opening reel, making it all the more striking when he’s accosted by two hitmen in the parking lot, and bloodily dispatches them with the aid of a spoon and a cup of instant ramen. As we gradually piece together along with our forgetful hero, Mike is a sleeper agent in a clandestine CIA program, endowed with top-level martial-arts skills and an encyclopedic knowledge of weaponry. With the program long since abandoned, a smarmy young Agency bureaucrat (Topher Grace) decides to target Mike for extermination, leading his former trainer (Connie Britton) to go rogue to rescue him.
The disconnect between Mike’s molasses-paced cognitive processes and killing-machine reflexes makes for some clever comedy early on, as his lower brain keeps getting him out of jams his higher brain got him into. And the interplay between Eisenberg and Stewart is effortlessly charming, with Stewart adding some welcome kinks and quirks to what could have been a thankless girlfriend role. But as the film nears its midway point, very few of its promising ideas are carried through, and it devolves into an average midrange actioner that just happens to feature an unlikely hero at the center. (Imagine a latter-day Van Damme outfitted with a Kurt Cobain wig and a “what, me worry?” countenance, and you’re halfway there.)
The film’s obvious antecedent, “Pineapple Express,” was thrilling because it committed equally to its Mutt-and-Jeff silliness and its genuinely brutal violence, giving its innocents-in-danger premise a surprising amount of emotional weight. “American Ultra,” on the other hand, often plays like a live-action Roadrunner cartoon, but without the sense of stylistic anarchy to pull it off. Grace, in particular, goes too over-the-top to be effectively detestable, but not far enough to be a satisfying comic villain, while Walton Goggins, as a goonish agency asset, drools and slobbers through his scenes as Mike’s primary adversary.
Nourizadeh helms a few of the action sequences with some panache, particularly a late brawl in a grocery store, but he never manages to pin down a consistent tone, mashing up a variety of cinematic styles without ever nailing any of them. Only at the end, with completely off-the-wall animated closing credits that embrace the film’s latent surreality, do we finally get a glimpse of what “American Ultra” has been aching to become.