Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are a FANTASTIC screen couple, but people flat refuse to watch their movies. American Ultra reunites the Adventureland co-stars, and even though no one expected it to open at #1, as Straight Outta Compton continues to dominate, Ultra still disappointed with a $5.5 million estimated opening weekend, no better than Adventureland’s $5.7 million opening weekend back in 2009. This doesn’t bode well for Woody Allen’s next movie, in which Eisenberg and Stewart co-star once again. In searching for the reason why Ultra tanked, it’s easy to blame it on super famous Stewart’s fans, who don’t show up for her movies. But we’re in a post-Movie Star era—Ryan Gosling is hugely famous and his fans aren’t actually watching his movies, either—and it’s missing the whole picture to just shrug and blame it on fans, who aren’t reliable anyway.
Part of the problem for Ultra is that no one predicted the runaway success of Straight Outta Compton, which has killed the box office for everyone else. But the bigger challenge is Ultra itself—this is a movie that defies marketing. It’s a mish-mash of genres that could be sold any number of ways, and never really be true to the advertising. Movie marketing has gotten out of control, but at the same time, it’s absolutely critical. Audiences are only going to see so many movies, and the marketplace is crowded—you have to give people a compelling reason to go see your movie. Distributor Lionsgate never found a compelling enough reason for Ultra. And frankly, I’m not sure there was one to be had. I couldn’t help but think that this is a movie better suited to on demand, where people are more willing to take chances on oddball stuff.
American Ultra is part action-comedy, part spy thriller, and part romantic drama, with Eisenberg starring as Mike, a burn-out working at a convenience store and trying to work up the nerve to propose to his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart). Thanks to the well-worn chemistry of Eisenberg and Stewart, Mike and Phoebe feel like a real, long-term couple, and their love is a tangible thing. When Mike worries about holding Phoebe back because he’s basically a helpless man-baby, it’s a truly moving moment between them. But Mike is not a helpless man-baby, he’s actually a super-spy left to stagnate in a backwater town after his CIA program was disbanded—think Jason Bourne with a bong.
When he’s activated in an effort to save his life after a CIA middle-management stooge (played with sneering delight by Topher Grace) decides to wipe out the remnants of Mike’s program, he goes on a killing spree, torn between lethal muscle memory and his pot-addled mind. Screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) offers some great flourishes, like a recurring bit in which Mike stops mid-murder spree to dialogue with opponents, but ultimately they don’t go anywhere. Individual scenes work well, but they amount to a disjointed whole, thanks to Nima Nourizadeh’s direction. Though dedicated to gore, Nourizadeh doesn’t go far enough with Landis’s concept of a Bourne-style stoner movie. There are a couple clever sequences, like the frying pan bit in the trailer, but generally Nourizadeh’s direction is standard action kablooey stuff, when Ultra could have used a more unique touch to match Landis’s distinct voice.
Despite a mid-movie reveal that feels dropped in out of nowhere, Mike and Phoebe’s relationship is the heart of the movie, and its best feature. Connie Britton as Mike’s former boss at the CIA comes in a close second, and Tony Hale and Walton Goggins both make hay with smaller supporting roles. The cast is very good—except for John Leguizamo who feels out of place as Mike’s drug dealer, Rose. Rose is a very stereotypical character, and Leguizamo a conventional choice, which doesn’t mesh when Jesse Eisenberg is the lead in an action movie. Still, on the whole American Ultra is a surprisingly emotional action/comedy/thriller/drama, anchored by Eisenberg and Stewart’s great chemistry and performances. It will no doubt find its audience on home video.