06252017Headline:

“American Ultra” movie review

By Jeff Boudreaux

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“American Ultra” is a unisex Harold & Kumar meets John Wick, with an interesting performance by Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network,” “Zombieland”) thrown in for good measure. It’s an action-comedy that is indeed likeable, but only manages to be sporadically funny. Director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) does a halfway decent job of blending a number of film styles, yet it seems to amount to the equivalent of the age-old “jack of all trades, master of none” argument.

Mike (Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) are stoners who have been living together for nearly five years. Unfortunately they can never take the next step in their relationship (Mike perpetually carries around an engagement ring) or even leave town on a vacation due to his uncontrollable panic attacks. Alas, when the two aren’t getting high they go about their mundane lives: Phoebe works at a Bail Bonds office and Mike runs the “Cash N’ Carry,” which seems to go full shifts without attracting any customers.

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One evening, lo and behold a woman does come in to purchase a cup of ramen noodles and a bottle of milk (yuck!), but that is obviously a front as her real reason of visitation is to mutter some unintelligible code words to Mike. He doesn’t seem to understand what it all means, but the stage has been set. The woman is CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton, “Nashville”) who has just gone rogue from her fanatical supervisor Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) who has himself gone rogue on a more corporate level, setting his sights on eliminating Mike because of a years-old government program that he’s jealous of. It’ll all make sense in a minute, trust me!

You see, Mike Howell was a 3-strike offender who was brainwashed, highly trained in the art of killing, and given a new identity by the CIA in a program called “Wise Men.” Mike is the last surviving member of the program, which is seen as competition by Yates, who has his own unit that he calls “Tough Guys” who are strikingly similar, yet don’t have normal lives. In fact, they just hang out in the back of a truck like robots ready to come off the assembly line!
DUNK360-Featured-Image-Jesse-Eisenberg-Kristen-Stewart-American-Ultra-Movie-Trailer-2015-1Realizing the need for an intervention, and having taken a liking to the young man after years of observation, Lasseter’s gibberish turned out to be a timed-release power switch to reawaken his fight-or-flight mega-skills. As a result, Mike is soon single-handedly lowering the ranks of “Tough Guy” membership as if he’s the long-lost offspring of Bryan Mills and Jack Reacher! It isn’t long before Phoebe becomes embroiled in Mike’s predicament, as the two must match wits to stay alive and give Yates way more than he bargained for.

The problem I had with this film was its unevenness, in spite of actually enjoying it. We go from stoner jokes to graphic violence on a dime, and there are simply too many unanswered questions in the screenplay by Max Landis (“Chronicle”). We never really get the gist of why Mike is the last remaining “Wise Man” and why Lasseter didn’t attempt to save any of the other special agents. Also troubling is why Lasseter reacted to Agent Douglas (Tony Hale of “Arrested Development”) so harshly when he entered her office near the beginning of the film, yet she later attempts to rely on him to help her end the tyrannical reign of Adrian Yates! If we had something that even remotely resembles a backstory on the pivotal character of Victoria Lasseter, I’m sure I wouldn’t be plagued by these questions.

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Jesse Eisenberg does a great job playing himself on speed, and actually impresses in his many fight scenes. His chemistry with Kristen Stewart is good, and she manages to get in a MUCH meatier role than just the badass stoner’s girlfriend. John Leguizamo is a hoot as always as Rose, Mike’s ghetto-speaking drug dealer. Last but certainly not least is Topher Grace, who’s hilarious as the disrespected, power-mad desk jockey now in command at CIA headquarters. He steals nearly every scene he’s in by managing to be a ridiculously unlikeable, yet kind of likeable guy. The film also stars familiar genre face Walton Goggins as “Laughter,” Yates’ hyena-like head assassin and screen veteran Bill Pullman as Raymond Kreuger, a CIA heavyweight that both Yates and Lasseter must answer to.

After it’s all said and done, “American Ultra” succeeds by positioning itself squarely in the mindless entertainment department. Mike and Phoebe aren’t your average couple, but they’re sweet in their own kind of way, and yes they can kick major ass when the going gets “Tough.”

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** (two out of four stars)

 

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