“American Ultra” has been promoted as a stoner comedy with a little action on the side, something like “Pineapple Express” or “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.”
Yet director Nima Nourizadeh focuses on action first and foremost. As he did in his 2012 debut feature “Project X,” he revels in gleeful excess, following every sharp object or speeding bullet as it punctures, splits or slices into human flesh, sending sprays of blood flying.
The blood settles just about everywhere — on clothing, hair, teeth, eyebrows — and stays, drying, for the bulk of the movie.
It effectively kills the laughter that Max Landis’ script deftly elicits in the movie’s opening act. One might assume that it also would kill the buzz of potheads who turn up hoping for another “The Big Lebowski,” “Half Baked” or “Smiley Face.” (Whoa… dude…)
But there’s a bright side. The movie’s central couple Mike (Jesse Eisenberg, completely genuine) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) — previously paired in the terrific “Adventureland” — are kind of adorable.
Together they project an honest-to-goodness, true-love vibe that makes you want to root for them.
Living in a small West Virginia town, Mike loves nothing more than to spend time with Phoebe, cartooning and smoking pot, when he’s not working at a small, little-frequented market.
They attempt to take a vacation in Hawaii, but Mike suffers a panic attack that prevents him from getting on the plane. Later, at work, two thugs attempt to mug him, but some kind of long-suppressed super-spy training surfaces and he manages to quickly dispatch both.
The CIA discovers that he has been re-activated. The nasty, bullying agent Yates (Topher Grace) launches a full-scale mission, including the use of an armed drone and more than a dozen trained killers, to get him. Grace casts a sour note with his screeching portrayal of the hateful character.
Meanwhile, agent Lasseter (a wonderful Connie Britton), who was in charge of Mike’s program, tries to protect him.
John Leguizamo, playing a chatty drug dealer named Rose, gets a laugh with nearly every line reading. It’s too bad he isn’t onscreen more.
He suggests that a better movie based on this material was possible. It may seem ironic, but toning down this outrageous stoner comedy might have been a good idea. Sometimes a little, like, goes a long way, you know?
Two and a half stars
Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton
Written by Max Landis
Directed by Nima Nourizadeh
Running time 1 hour, 36 minutes