“American Ultra” Movie Review


     When you find out director Nima Nourizadeh’s feature film debut was the hyperkinetic found footage teenage raunch fest “Project X”, it’s easy to assume his next feature would follow along with the same fast moving in your face style.  One part “Clerks” and another part “The Long Kiss Goodnight” with a hint of comic book film playfulness, “American Ultra” is that late summer action comedy that brings just enough to the table to entertain, but not enough to have you talking about it even as you leave the theater.  It’s ultra violent premise leads to plenty of overly gory killings by way of everything under the kitchen sink.  Apparently, Nourizadeh and his screenwriter, Max Landis (“Chronicle”), were quite enthralled by the climactic sequence at the end of last year’s “The Equalizer” since their film features many more ways to kill someone by way of what you can find on the shelves of your local hardware store. 

     The story begins by introducing us to Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart) as your typical pot smoking slacker couple.  That “Clerks” vibe sets in immediately when Mike opens up the local convenience store in a small rural town and proceeds to light up and draw his own comic books with nary a customer in sight.  When he goes home, we find Phoebe waiting for him and the two seem to share an undeniable bond in which they are happy with their simple life and lack of any real responsibility.  And then CIA Agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) shows up to the store with a warning for Mike.  Apparently, he was once an experimental agent or assassin.  Part of a failed program that went woefully wrong and the decision was made to wipe the memory of those left and reinsert them into the real world.  Kinda sounds like the “Bourne” films right?  Well that’s probably because those are the most recent examples of this type of plot with the aforementioned “The Long Kiss Goodnight” actually being the film here that feels the most ripped off.

     Lasseter’s warning is that a rogue agent named Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) intends to kill Mike and any of the remaining hidden agents of the program gone wrong.  Though Mike doesn’t heed her warning, it’s not long before he notices two men attaching something to the bottom of his car outside the convenience store.  When he goes to confront them with a hot cup of noodles and a spoon in his hand, something in his mind suddenly clicks when the two men pull out guns and knives and attempt to kill him.  Mike then unleashes a barrage of pin point martial arts techniques, utilizing the hot water to distract one man as he jams the spoon into the others neck.  He disarms and shoots them both with all of the skill and accuracy of a highly trained ninja, but then doesn’t really know how he was able to do so.  He calls Phoebe to the scene, but she seems as blown away by the situation as he is.

     If you’ve seen movies like “Kickass” then you already know the kind of violence in store for you in “American Ultra”.  It seems like ever since that last “Rambo” movie, filmmakers have loved to take advantage of CGI blood splatter and nearly every killing in this film shows off the inventive directions one can take that effect.  Yates has a literal army of experimental assassins at his disposal and has set up shop in Mike’s town under the guise of an infectious disease that has spread throughout the area.  Nourizadeh stages one action sequence after another in which multiple attackers come after Mike, allowing him to dispatch them in ways mostly devoid of a firearm and instead using something close by.  Like a frying pan maybe.  There’s really nothing original or special about anything you see in these sequences, other than maybe they look well choreographed and take place in some oddball settings like Mike’s drug dealer’s basement that is sports glow in the dark wall paint and decor.  John Leguizamo appears as the drug dealer I spoke of, but his appearance is basically wasted.  Walton Goggins turn as one of the genetically altered agents called the Laugher might have you smile a few times.

     Once the action slows and Nourizadeh is forced to figure out a way to wrap up the whole mess, you can tell there was a struggle as to how to get there.  He manages a few twists along the way, but Bill Pullman’s cameo as the presumable head of the CIA doesn’t pack the punch that I believe was intended.  Both Eisenberg and Stewart prove game and must’ve endured an incredible amount of blood and bruise makeup by the end since their characters take a massive beating by the time it’s all said and done.  It’s beyond me why these films end up getting made, but perhaps they serve as a sort of under the belt kind of experience a filmmaker needs to up his/her game and take their next project to the next level.  I don’t see why quality is so hard to come by when we hit the late August portion of the summer time, but films like “American Ultra” seem to be the accepted norm for this time of year as we try to bridge the gap between the big summer blockbusters and the more awards worthy films due out in the fall.  GRADE: C-