What It’s About
Too hip for the room, “American Ultra” feels like a movie adaptation of a graphic novel, yet it is only a mash-up of familiar material lacquered with buckets of blood.
A far-fetched premise that gets harder to fathom as the body count piles up, our action-packed adventure begins in a sleepy West Virginia town, where stoner-slacker Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) lives in hazy domestic bliss with girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). When he’s not working his convenience store shift, he’s smoking weed or drawing his “Apollo Ape” graphic novel.
But underneath the stringy hair and grubby flannel shirt, Mike is a trained CIA assassin, what is referred to as a sleeper agent. He was a part of the Ultra program, which is now deactivated. A ruthless, smug CIA suit (Topher Grace) targets Mike for extinction, as he perceives him to be expendable. However, somehow he has been “activated.”
Hired guns and goons descend upon the small town, and it becomes a war zone while Mike is trying to wrap his dense head around what’s happening. Phoebe gets caught up in the mayhem, too. While they’re on the run for their lives, they exhibit impressive lethal defensive skills.
Tarantino-wannabe director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) pours on the excess — explosions, civilians in the crossfire, weird characters getting stranger by the minute, and blood, rivers of it. The cartoonish feel must be intentional — and there is a lengthy animated end credits sequence to continue that vibe. Screenwriter Max Landis, son of director John, aims for farce, and the characters are mostly over-the-top, but it’s the whiplash jerks in tone that make it a hard movie to like.
The hipster appeal is obvious, and there are amusing moments — just not enough to make a whole lot of sense.
Eisenberg and Stewart are convincing as a romantic couple and display a resourcefulness to get out of jams, although their work together in “Adventureland” is far stronger. Nevertheless, the roles are in their wheelhouse, although Eisenberg (“Now You See Me”) strikes me as far too smart to ever play dumb.
A solid supporting cast makes the most of their meager roles. Tony Hale, so gifted at playing socially awkward people, engages here as a CIA desk jockey loyal to his old boss (Connie Britton), but isn’t used enough. As he might play the funniest character currently on TV on “Veep,” he surely could have been used more.
Topher Grace is incredibly off-putting as an ambitious major brown-nosing jerk, and he needed to go away. Walter Goggins is a maniacal mad man/killing machine and John Leguizamo milks his gangsta player to the max.
The study in contrasts keeps one entertained, and the clever use of every day goods as weapons keeps it interesting.
What Doesn’t Work
But the bloody assault on our ears and eyes becomes repetitive and tedious. Why should we care again?
But don’t overthink the plot. This is a summer throwaway movie meant to poke fun at all the larger-than-life blockbuster scenarios. The cast appears to be having fun in a chaotic environment, as it’s too silly to take seriously.
“American Ultra” is intended to be as sturdy as a styrofoam cup of instant noodles, and just as filling.
1 1/2 stars
out of 4
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Tony Hale, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo,
Rated: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.