While Jesse Eisenberg and his greasy hair extensions are the stars of American Ultra, he never amounts to anything more than an idea. As Mike Howell, a stoner with a forgotten past as a CIA guinea pig for creating super-assassins, Eisenberg portrays a collection of boy-centered comedy clichés–the dead-end retail job, an inability to leave a small town, disappointing the girlfriend he wishes to marry–as both heavily self-aware of his own loser status while being spacey and clueless enough to blunder his efforts to do anything about it. The script, from Max Landis, indicates this is part of his programming, yet nonetheless Mike becomes targeted for death by a power-hungry desk jockey (Topher Grace, solidifying his meek sarcasm into something bitter and dangerously desperate to be taken serious)
Nima Nourizadeh shoots everything competently, with a love of garish color schemes, neck stabbings, and underground comix sensibilities (the end credits are an animated spectacle from Gary Leib). He never centers the film with Mike though, merely explodes it around him, with a cast of character actors (Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale) whose own stories seem more compelling yet barely explored. Most egregious of all is Kristen Stewart as Phoebe, Mike’s girlfriend. Tirelessly understanding of his shortcomings, Phoebe cheers his artistic endeavors and sticks up for him against a local sheriff, even leaps into a fight against trained killers. When he actualizes, in a department store climax, she’s even excited at his fulfilled potential. Stewart lends intensity to this supportive role, always glaring at threats or scanning for exits, taking charge for her confused partner–Kyle Reese from The Terminator come again. She’s sabotaged at the writing level, though, given a mindscrew twist before forced into a damsel position. Holding back its biggest presence, the film suffers.