American Ultra (Lionsgate, R)

american-ultra 75While the film’s hardly painful to watch, it is quite a bit more boring than one might expect of an action-comedy.




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Nima Nourizadeh’s new film American Ultra is one of those movies that feels like a lot of other movies you’ve seen before, and trying to write about it sounds like a bad pitch one might have heard in Robert Altman’s The Player: It’s like a cross between Pineapple Express and The Bourne Identity, but with an idiot savant main character along the lines of Rain Man or maybe Forrest Gump. More specifically, American Ultra stars Jesse Eisenberg as Mike Howell, a useless stoner living in West Virginia, who, while under duress, finds that he has some instinctual training of some sort to make him a very effective killer. We as the audience know this is because he was the subject of some sort of shady government program run by a woman named Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton). While her program wasn’t exactly successful, it’s being rather brutally ended by the power-mad Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), which leads to Ms. Lasseter trying to awaken Mike’s as-to-now latent powers, and then Mike trying to keep himself and his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), safe.

Eisenberg and Stewart proved back in 2009’s Adventureland that they work very well together on screen, and have a chemistry that one might not expect, given their respective career choices. This comes back up again in American Ultra, though not as effectively as it did in Adventureland; all the same, their rapport is one of the film’s highlights, witnessed for example in a metaphor introduced early in the movie where Mike speculates that he’s an immobile tree that Phoebe’s moving car crashes into, stopping its movement forever.

Sadly, worthwhile insights into their relationship such as the above are few and far between in American Ultra, as are the laughs, thrills, and much of anything else. While the film’s hardly painful to watch, it is quite a bit more boring than one might expect of an action-comedy with a good cast and potentially interesting premise.

What few highlights the film has often come from bit parts, played by the likes of Tony Hale (Buster Bluth of Arrested Development), one of the few people on Lasseter’s side, and Walton Goggins (Django Unchained) as Laughter, one of the more ruthless manhunters out to get Mike. Elsewhere, John Leguizamo is once again typecast as a drug dealer, a role he’s good at, even if he has played it a few too many times.

Nourizadeh (whose only other feature film is 2012’s Project X) is here working from a script by Max Landis, best known as a co-screenwriter on 2012’s Chronicle. And while it wouldn’t be accurate to describe American Ultra as a success, it’s at least passable enough as to fare better for Landis’ career than Chronicle’s director Josh Trank’s follow-up film, Fantastic Four. | Pete Timmermann

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