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American Ultra

Theatrical Review

Lionsgate; 96 minutes

Director: Nima Nourizadeh

Written by on August 18, 2015 

From its first few shots, it’s clear that American Ultra is removed from the relatively grounded drama of Greg Mottola’s underrated Adventureland, the last film that paired Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart. We first meet Eisenberg’s bloodied and beaten Mike Howell detained and chained to a table in a septic interrogation room. As an agent throws photographic evidence of the trail of chaos that’s been left behind, Howell’s eyes twitch. A rush of images come swirling at the screen, revealing his involvement in this destruction and previewing what will be the bulk of the narrative. It’s a curious choice for a film whose studio required its critics to sign non-disclose agreements so as to not reveal the twists and turns. However, the swiftness at which the Mission: Impossible-esque foreshadowing splashes on the screen makes these images barely register, laying out clues for its audience to piece together.

A few days prior, we’re back in the more relaxed fictional town of Liman, West Virginia, a place so small that there’s barely a customer each day at the local convenience store where Howell works. The cops also know him by name, although that perhaps has to do with his great fondness for marijuana and the legal entanglements therein. Living with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Stewart), and hoping to imminently pop the big question, Howell’s anxiety attacks prevent him from making strides in his life, and so he instead puts energy into his homespun Apollo Ape comics. This lo-fi life soon kicks into high gear when we learn he’s an unknowing sleeper agent who’s had a hit sent out on them. Thanks to the help of his past handler, Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), he’s been re-activated in order to defend himself from a treacherous government program.


Director Nima Nourizadeh — whose debut Project X seemed to irritate anyone outside of its intended demographic but spawned enough business to earn a sequel — continues his visual flair here, toning down the obtrusive gaudiness just a touch (at least outside of the stomach-churning violence). For lacking a sense of directorial vision in the film’s numerous fight sequences, which often feel cobbled together in the editing room, set-pieces involving a barrage of fireworks and black lighting add a welcome, heightened visual element.

As the action disappoints, the central performances from Eisenberg and Stewart help to sell the madness they are taking part in. Howell’s escalating reconciliation with an expansive knowledge of tanks, gun, and his own memory provide the film’s strongest humor, along with pot-afflicted reactions before, during, and after gun-fueled clashes. Meanwhile, the backbone of it all — Phoebe and Mike’s “f*cked-up” relationship and potential nuptials — provides an unforeseen, affecting through-line amidst the mayhem, stabilizing the far-fetched and tiresome side-plot.


As the script from Max Landis (Chronicle) aims to continually one-up itself while moving through levels of bureaucratic over-steps, most of the supporting characters don’t fare as well. Topher Grace‘s abusive agent, Adrian Yates, is a half-baked caricature that sucks the life out of the proceedings, while Walton Goggins, as his main henchman, does his best at a demented take on The Joker as the maniacal Laugh-er, with some ill-fitted, late-stage redemption falling short. John Leguizamo, who fit well into comedic slots in last year’s John Wick and Chef, tries to do it again as Howell’s dealer, while Tony Hale attempts to eek out some sympathy as a vacillating agent, yet neither can overcome the script’s lowest-common-denominator satire.

As much as the film glides by on the chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart, Nourizadeh and Landis can’t offer up the cleverness required to get us invested in the absurdity of full-on government paranoia. Smashing together Jason Bourne and Pineapple Express without the visceral thrills of the former franchise nor the slapdash humor of the latter, American Ultra may surprise some with its emotional core, but it’s ultimately little more than a lazy Tarantino knock-off.

American Ultra opens nationwide on Friday, August 21.


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