Monday, August 24, 2015

A Stoner Finds Out That He's A Super Soldier In AMERICAN ULTRA

Now playing a multiplex near you (at least for a week or two):

AMERICAN ULTRA (Dir. Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

With its hyperkinetic editing, head-banging score, and high body count I kept thinking that this amped up, noisy action comedy must be based on some graphic novel I’ve never heard of.

That its hero (anti-hero?), a shaggy stoner named Mike played by a Jesse Eisenberg, draws cartoons about a monkey astronaut also added to that impression, but no, this isn’t based on any pre-existing property of any kind. So, for a summer movie, it’s got that going for it.

The scenario that on the surface, Eisenberg’s Mike is a small town slacker convenience store clerk, but underneath he’s actually a highly-trained CIA assassin, is, as many critics have pointed out, a one-joke premise. As such, I really dug the set-up, but wasn’t so hot on the punchline.

Mike, who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, who was also Eisenberg’s love interest in ADVENTURELAND) in the fictional burg of Liman, West Virginia, doesn’t know he’s a genetically engineered killing machine because he’s been “de-activated.”

But when two black-ops gunmen approach him in the parking lot of the Cash-N-Carry where he works, and he is able to swiftly disarm and kill them - with the help of a cup of soup and a spoon, mind you – he knows something is up.

Mike has been re-activated by Connie Britton as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter because her young assholish boss Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to end the Ultra program - the government experiment that had brainwashed Mike to begin with - and our pot-smoking protagonist is tagged for termination.

So the movie becomes a manhunt for Mike, with he and Phoebe being pursued by a bunch of Ultra operatives, including the creepy Walton Goggins and stand-out stunt woman Monique Ganderton, through a police station shoot-out, a raid at their drug dealer friend Rose’s (John Leguizamo) pad, and finally a box store climax where things get more than messy.

The bombardment of the second half’s series of shoot-outs, fight scenes, and chases got very tiresome as there have been so many movies about indestructible bad-ass with unique sets of skills, and there’s only so much of seeing Eisenberg offing attacker after attacker that I could be amused by.

There is a funny thread about Mike trying to pick the right time to propose to Phoebe amid all the chaos (Eisenberg sells this sort of neurotic, lovesick stuff much better than the killing machine material unsurprisingly), and a batch of good lines sprinkled throughout (like “They had guns and knives and they were being total dicks!”), but there’s not enough of a spark of real inspiration to make this a truly memorable experience.

Screenwriter Max Landis may have thought that the love story part of it would give the rest the gas to power it on through, but I really wasn’t buying Stewart’s role particularly when it came to the big reveal about why she’d stay in a long term relationship with such a deadbeat.

AMERICAN ULTRA is an ultra violent mash-up of THE BOURNE IDENTITY and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, with a fair amount of the comic carnage of KICK-ASS (minus the superhero angle) mixed in as well. It has its moments, but I wish Max Landis’ screenplay took more chances, and didn’t just stick to a done to death formula. The idea that a stoner comes to find out that he’s a super soldier in secret is a good one; if only they had one or two more good ideas for it to rub up against.

More later...

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