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American Ultra
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Man From Uncle Ike's"
2 stars

One of the side jokes in the new ultra-violent action comedy "American Ultra" is that our seemingly aimless hero spends his considerable downtime sketching ideas for a comic book to be called "Astro Ape," about the adventures of a space-traveling simian. People who look at these illustrations seem to genuinely like them and are convinced that there is a potential audience for them but he never quite gets around to making that next crucial step to try to make that happen. As it turns out, the film as a whole suffers from that same problem--it has a potentially nifty premise and a couple of hugely talented actors at its disposal but it turns out to be nothing more than a fitfully amusing and ultimately tedious trifle that is never quite as edgy and daring as it would like to think itself to be.

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, an amiable stoner who seems to be permanently stuck in his current state of existence--he has a dead-end job in a convenience store that is ironically located in the middle of nowhere, he literally has crippling panic attack every time he tries to leave his tiny West Virginia town and while he loves his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) enough to have gotten her an engagement ring, he can't quite bring himself to pop the question. Change finally comes one night when a strange woman (Connie Britton) comes into the store spouting what sounds like a bunch of gibberish followed by an attack in the parking lot from a couple of well-armed hit men that he bloodily dispatches with surprising ease.

As we gradually begin to discover, Mike was actually a participant in a secret CIA program to create super-agents of some sort that endowed him with incredible martial arts skills and weapons training. Alas, virtually all of the volunteers, aside from Mike, went mad, the program was shut down and his sympathetic handler, the woman who turned up in the store, relocated him, wiped his memory and gave him a new life. Now, an up-and-coming bureau boor (Topher Grace) has decided to try and accelerate his career by unleashing his own array of super-warriors, mostly recruited from prisons and psych wards, to hunt down and terminate Mike. With Phoebe at his side and the entire town on lockdown, Mike tries to keep from being eliminated--taking out many attackers along the way--while eventually unlocking dark secrets about himself and his beloved.

In other words, the film plays like a weird mashup of "The Bourne Identity" and "Pineapple Express" and I won't kid you--that does sound like a nifty idea for a movie. Indeed, the early scenes in which Mike tries to make some sort of sense of all these abilities rushing back to his zonked-out self are the most entertaining--his reaction to killing the two parking lot attackers by utilizing a spoon and some Ramen noodles as weapons is hilarious. Unfortunately, the film doesn't really take the premise and do anything with it. Screenwriter Max Landis tackled the notion of an ordinary guy being blessed/cursed with extraordinary powers to interesting effect in "Chronicle" but here, he just uses the premise as a launching pad for a series of increasingly violent set-pieces that try to imitate the brilliant way that "Pineapple Express" blended together goofy comedy and unapologetic brutality but never quite find the right balance. Likewise, director Nima Nourizadeh never quite manages to find the right tone for the piece and while it is nice that he doesn't overplay the stoner angle, the mishmash of styles proves to be ultimately unsatisfying.

What does work to a certain extent are the two performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, in their first on-screen pairing since the cult comedy favorite "Adventureland." Neither of them are exactly working with top material here and clips from the film will not play a heavy part in any future Lifetime Achievement highlight reels but they somehow manage to make something out of the nonsense for a while. For starters, as was proven in "Adventureland," they do have an undeniable screen chemistry that is fun to watch. Eisenberg is playing a ridiculous character, of course, but he commits to it so completely that you can almost believe that this zonked-out scruff can indeed lay bloody waste to any and all attackers. Stewart is stuck with a virtually unplayable role--not only is she the girlfriend in a guy-centered action movie, she is the girlfriend harboring a shocking secret that practically everyone in the theater will have figured out long before the big reveal--but she manages to make it into something convincing and interesting. For the most part, the other actors (who include John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale and Bill Pullman) are largely wasted in underwritten roles while Grace, as the ultra-smarmy bad guy, is pretty much awful throughout.

"American Ultra" has its good points and as late-summer multiplex fodder goes, you and I have both seen worse. I kept hoping that it would finally right itself and become a smart and funny action comedy in the manner of the aforementioned "Pineapple Express" or the great "Grosse Pointe Blank" but it never did and while the final scene does suggest that this could somehow be transformed into a series, I cannot imagine anyone, either in the production or in the audience, that would want to have another go-around at this. That said, the end credits do include the fully animated exploits of Astro Ape in all their surreal glory--that, I would gladly pay to see more of in a heartbeat.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=29072&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/20/15 21:57:59
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User Comments

8/24/15 Peter Sobczynski Dont we all ! ! ! 5 stars
8/22/15 Tony Brubaker I want to bugger Kristen Stewart. 5 stars
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  21-Aug-2015 (R)
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