Action-Comedy: A stoner convenience-store clerk learns that he is actually a sleeper agent targeted for elimination by the CIA.
Mike Howell (JESSE EISENBERG) is a pot-smoking convenience-store clerk in small-town West Virginia, who suffers from panic attacks and lives with his stoner girlfriend, Phoebe (KRISTEN STEWART). One night, a mysterious woman named Victoria (CONNIE BRITTON) walks into his store, comes up to him, and mutters some odd sentences. He brushes them off as the ramblings of a crazy lady.
As it turns out, Victoria is a CIA project leader, and Mike was a master assassin she once trained. When the experiment that he was a part of was shut down, she had his memory wiped and assigned him a new identity. Now, though, a young upstart CIA analyst named Adrian Yates (TOPHER GRACE) wants to make a name for himself in the agency and targets Mike for extermination.
Fortunately, the words Victoria uttered begin triggering all of his old training, and Mike discovers he has superior martial-arts and weapons skills. They come in handy when he is attacked repeatedly by assassins, led by the cackling, homicidal Laugher (WALTON GOGGINS). Mike looks for help from his drug dealer friend, Rose (JOHN LEGUIZAMO), while Victoria is assisted by Petey (TONY HALE), a former protégé of hers recently promoted at Langley. Together, they must all team up to try and take Yates down and stave off elimination.
OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
Have you seen the trailer for the new Robert De Niro comedy, "The Intern," in which the former star of "Taxi Driver," "Mean Streets," and "GoodFellas" plays a late-in-life intern at a 21st-century social media firm run by Anne Hathaway and staffed by a collection of Millennial hipsters? In the trailer, Hathaway shakes her head and laments, "How in one generation have men gone from guys like Jack Nicholson and Harrison Ford to [you guys]?" And the camera pans over to a trio of Seth Rogen/Jay Baruchel boy-men lookalikes.
She could very well have been talking about "American Ultra," a hyper-violent action film in which Jesse Eisenberg squares off in a bloody winner-takes-all with Topher Grace. Yeah, THOSE two paragons of masculinity! So, yeah, I know of what Anne speaks. Now, of course, there's a twist. Eisenberg isn't supposed to be some muscular, testosterone-fueled super spy a la Matt Damon or Daniel Craig. He plays a pothead stoner living in small-town West Virginia who doesn't realize he is a sleeper agent for the CIA. The Agency wiped his memory, gave him a new identity, and assigned him a handler in Kristen Stewart's agent-turned-doobie smoker. And Grace isn't supposed to be a villain on the scary, manly, diabolical level of a Robert Davi or Alan Rickman. He's supposed to be a sniveling yuppie larva who slimed his way to a position of authority.
The set-up of "American Ultra" is solid, and there is some good character work done early on. It's kind of a cross between Jason Bourne and Jay and Silent Bob, with more than a little "True Romance" thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the longer the film goes on, the bloodier and more artless it gets. Director Nima Nourizadeh is emerging as perhaps the least subtle filmmaker working in any medium today, pornography included. His first effort, "Project X," still holds this reviewer's personal record for most amount of notebook pages dedicated to content ... 22! "Straight Outta Compton" came close. But "Project X" -- about the booze-and-drugs-and-sex party to end all parties -- nearly broke me.
Here, Nourizadeh heaps so much violence on his film's thin story in its second half, that it ceases to be about anything resembling character and just becomes about how much blood we can spill and how many things can we shoot up and still get an R rating. Stewart's Phoebe becomes a wasted damsel in distress, Grace becomes a shrill caricature, and Eisenberg is essentially made into one of the first-person shooter types you see in video games.
In more capable hands, this could have been this year's "John Wick," a deliriously violent film from last year that also featured a clever script, deft performances, and absolutely stunning cinematography. It also included a real rooting interest amid the blood and guts. As silly as it sounds, you REALLY wanted to see Keanu Reeves' title character avenge the murder of his beloved dog. Here, it's not clear why you would root for Eisenberg's Mike. It's not clear why Grace is SO keen on killing him. Would it really advance him even further up the CIA ladder? Who cares?
So, a near-miss for me. If you just want to see shootings and beatings and gougings, you could do worse. But might I recommend "John Wick" on DVD if you missed it last year. And if you want to see Eisenberg and Stewart in a MUCH better movie, rent the little-seen "Adventureland" from a few years back. You'll be glad you did. I rate this latest effort a 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)