American Ultra **

Not funny, not exciting, not really all that interesting.

Is it worth $10? No

“American Ultra” lost me in its opening scene and never got me back. This is one of those movies in which the ending is immediately revealed and we work back to that dramatic moment teased early on, which is almost always a storytelling mistake. Doing this undermines any drama or tension the film may have, essentially forcing us to think “how did he get there?” as opposed to the much-preferred “where is he going?”, and all for no good reason.

But wait, it gets worse! Not only do we learn where the protagonist, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), will end up, director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) then gives us a reverse-chronological rapidly edited flashback that show moments from the film all the way back to three days earlier. The big question is why do this? There is no reason to structure the story this way, as it adds nothing to the narrative aside from inevitability. The filmmaker’s hope is that the opening tease will get us hooked and intrigued; seeing a battered and bruised Mike in handcuffs about to be interrogated in a well-lit room, followed by close-ups of random pictures, isn’t nearly enough to draw us in.

Poor setup aside, the script by Max Landis (“Chronicle”) did have potential. Mike is a longhaired stoner loser do-nothing who isn’t even trying to get his act together. His girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) accepts him for who he is even though she knows they’re going nowhere together. In fact, there’s really nothing interesting about them until Mike easily kills two dudes outside the grocery store at which he works.

Come to find out Mike was the subject of a failed CIA experiment to create a super agent, and now he’s in danger. Desk jockey Victoria (Connie Britton) began the now-dormant program, and CIA ladder climber Adrian (Topher Grace) has swooped in to clean up her mess. But Victoria feels protective of Mike (for no good reason), and “activates” Mike so he can defend himself against Adrian’s assassins.

Yes, the plot is “Harold & Kumar” meets “The Bourne Identity.” There are too many plot holes to count, Grace isn’t a convincing villain, and it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. In casting Eisenberg and Stewart the right choices were made for actors who could mix comedy with action and dramatic moments. Still, it doesn’t come together.

Part of the reason is the aforementioned flawed setup, and another is the excessive violence. We hear bones cracking, see blood splatter, observe deaths by all sorts of household appliances. It’s a bit much for the otherwise silly premise of a stoner who fights back against a secret government experiment gone wrong. A lighter PG-13 rating would’ve suited Grace’s “oh jeez, come on!” villainous approach better, allowed for more comedy, less violence, and a better overall experience.
Did you know?
In July 2015 the studio distributing the film, Lionsgate, targeted San Diego Comic Con attendees with an offer of free marijuana for those who could prove they have a prescription for medical marijuana. More details here:
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