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Review: American Ultra

August 21, 2015

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

American Ultra PosterJason Bourne on drugs was probably the original log line that screenwriter Max Landis sent to the studio for American Ultra, and what little plot this late summer action comedy does have is pretty basic and also kind of stupid.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a well meaning but constantly anxious rural convenience store clerk, who lives a mundane and frequently stoned life with his girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart), waiting for the perfect moment to propose.

But when he suddenly discovers his ability to kill armed attackers with only found objects and his bare hands, Mike and Phoebe end up on the run from the government, discovering the truth that he’s actually a highly trained agent who had his memory wiped and went rogue, and is now in threat of being eliminated.

This relatively simplistic plot is pretty much all about waiting for the next hit from a bong or a bullet, and that’s fine if all you’re looking for is a mindless stoner action comedy.  But American Ultra ultimately can’t live up to its lofty but inevitable comparisons to The Pineapple Express, and Jesse Eisenberg’s own superior work in the equally gory but much funnier and more original Zombieland.  The film does have a few enjoyable moments here and there, mainly courtesy of some likeable chemistry between the two capable leads, but they were also better together in the superior Adventureland.

With the presence of these actors, we are sometimes left wishing American Ultra was actually trying harder to rise about its modest B-movie ambitions, and the almost cartoonishly over the top bloodshed sometimes crosses the line from feeling jokey, to just plain dull and ugly.  Director Nima Nourizadeh’s previous film, the found footage party flick Project X, was equally built around flashy editing and pretty brainless plotting, but was also a small margin more enjoyable for these reasons.

There is inevitably an audience that will take to this cult classic wannabe, and American Ultra isn’t a complete failure at what it sets out to do.  It’s also digestibly brief at only 94 minutes.  But this subgroup of curious viewers can probably save their money until the film is available on demand and viewable from the comfort of their own couches, with whatever enhancements deemed necessary.

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