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American Ultra Review: This Stoner Assassin Bores

By Julian Roman — August 20th, 2015

American Ultra aims to mix violence, absurdity, humor, and romance. It achieves this goal...poorly. Somewhat surprising, since stars Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart had such great chemistry in Adventureland. Unfortunately, a pedantic script from Max Landis (Chronicle) and maudlin direction by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) doesn't recreate that magic. American Ultra had promise. A comedic take on the CIA's infamous MK Ultra program could have been great. We'll have to wait for a better film, because American Ultra falls woefully short.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as slacker stoner Mike Howell. He and his hippie girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart); live a relatively carefree existence in a small Virginia town. They smoke weed, work menial jobs, and are madly in love. Mike suffers from overwhelming panic attacks every time he tries to leave town. His hope of proposing to Phoebe in Hawaii ends disastrously when he can't even get on the plane.

Mike ponders alternative proposal plans while at his shift at the Cash N' Carry. He's visited by a strange woman (Connie Britton), who recites a nonsensical passage of words. Then leaves a spoon and cup of noodles on the counter. Mike heats up the noodles, but goes outside the store when two men start to mess with his car. When they suddenly attack, Mike dispatches them with gruesome effectiveness. Floored by his actions, he calls Phoebe to the scene, and they are both promptly arrested by the local keystone cops. What follows is an all-out assault on the jail by psychotic, heavily armed attackers. While Mike and Phoebe run for their lives, a government spook (Topher Grace), quarantines the town, and unleashes hell hunting for them. Mike soon realizes that new memories and abilities have been somehow triggered. Deadly skills that he will certainly need if he and Phoebe are to survive.

The overall concept of the programmed assassin works. We can suspend disbelief and buy into the idea that a benign pothead is a secret killing machine. There's a whole lot of revelations throughout the story, which I won't discuss, but a key point is never explained. Why is Phoebe so in love with Mike? He's essentially her puppy, and she's almost his mother. The script wants the audience to believe that something in the past made these two fall in love. That needed to be shown, or at least glossed over. It's not, and it makes their relationship seem totally implausible.

American Ultra is insanely violent. But the violence isn't particularly interesting. Yes, lots of ubiquitous bad guys get shredded. There's gunplay and fisticuffs galore. It's loud and messy, but not intriguing. There's one scene with a clever use of a frying pan, but that's really the only action scene that stirred me. This is also a huge flaw in the script. If the bad guys, aka government, have the ability to use tanks, planes, all kinds of weaponry; why not just blow the guy up in the first place? Or gas their house while they slept? It seems to me that Mike's death could easily have been achieved within a minute of the opening credits. But then you wouldn't have a movie.

American Ultra isn't terrible. The supporting characters are the saving grace. John Leguizamo, Tony Hale, and Walton Goggins are pretty funny. They add most of the comic relief to the story. That works well, but not enough to shore up the film. Eisenberg and Stewart are fairly straightforward in their delivery. They go through the motions and not much else. Jesse Eisenberg gets beaten to a bloody pulp as the film progresses. He looks the part, so a deserving nod goes to the make-up artists.

American Ultra goes through the motions. The plot unveils like rolling toilet paper down a stairway. A few hitches or surprises would have gone a long way. I anticipated a Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club vibe, from the trailers. Lower your expectations because American Ultra isn't nearly that exciting.

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