If you were ever interested in seeing Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart kick a little bit of ass, then American Ultra may be just what the doctor prescribed. There is a lot of ass-kicking and although many may not see Eisenberg as the action hero/secret agent type, it’s this aspect that makes the film that much more funny, and perhaps slightly awkward as well. From director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle), American Ultra has a few good moments, good chemistry between its lead actors, but ultimately doesn’t strike the right chords in pacing and story flow.

Mike Howell (Eisenberg), a stoner and convenience store clerk, is stuck in a small town in West Virginia. And quite literally stuck too. He has anxiety attacks if any attempt is made to leave his little town and bubble he’s in. The thought of being on a plane is enough to send him running, nauseous, to the bathroom. With all of his eccentricities, his girlfriend Phoebe (Stewart) still loves him, even if her patience sometimes grows thin. But things get way too complicated for Mike when he’s targeted for extermination by the CIA.

As part of an old training program called Ultra, he’s found to be a liability and targeted by CIA “desk jockey” Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) and his team of mentally unstable agents, one of whom is called Laugher (Walton Goggins). But former head of the Ultra program, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), intervenes. However, Mike is clueless that he’s a sleeper agent and what he doesn’t know may just get him killed.

The film is much less of a comedy than it advertises itself to be. It does have some comedic beats, but plain and simple, it’s a chase movie. The characters spend the majority of the time playing hide and seek, but the film never creates any raw moments for us to care enough about what happens. The violence is exceptionally gory and over-the-top for a film that already tries too hard to make everyone seem like a badass. The energy is sometimes too frenetic, but the actual events and scenes are a bit on the dull side and don’t rise up to meet at the crossroads of the film’s spy background, perhaps because, like Eisenberg’s character, it’s too focused on being stoned.

Yes, the expectations were a bit higher, at least on the entertainment factor, but it doesn’t quite deliver in that respect either. Which is a shame, because Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have great chemistry, their romance is believable, and they gave more in their performances than the story delivered. American Ultra got started but never really got going. Topher Grace is the suit man behind the ordeal and trigger-happy to boot (except for the fact that he never goes near a gun save to yell orders for his team to do so), but his character is too cartoonish in his blatant evil. The film is chaotic, but not in a good way and struggles to pick up its pace. Excessively violent and gory without needing to be, American Ultra never quite realizes which path it wants to take and leaves you ultimately unsatisfied.

2.5 star

 

Release Date: August 21, 2015 | Director: Nima Nourizadeh | Screenwriter: Max Landis | Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Bill Pullman | Genre: Action, Comedy | MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use, and some sexual content

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About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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