Friday, August 21, 2015

Zaki's Review: American Ultra

American Ultra posits a mildly amusing premise -- what if a stoned-out slacker found out he was Jason Bourne? -- and turns it into ninety or so minutes of filmmaking that are probably a lot more engaging than they have any right to be. Directed by Project X's Nima Nourizadeh and starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart (in a post-Adventureland reunion), it's a little too slapdash narratively and stylistically to be truly revolutionary, but it does offer its share of chuckles, and benefits both from the talented cast and a sprightly script by Max Landis (Chronicle).

Eisenberg plays the "Ultra" of the title, a grungy loser named Mike Howell who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in a shack in the woods. When the two aren't toking up, Mike is manning the register at a convenience store in the middle of nowhere, dreaming up new adventures for the cartoon ape he created. This life of drug-addled contentment comes to an abrupt halt when government agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) shows up at his store, utters a mysterious phrase, and disappears.

Suddenly, Mike finds his physical and mental abilities augmented to a superhuman degree -- which couldn't have happened at a better time, as he's soon beset by hordes of black-clad assassins intent on ending him. You see, Mike is actually a highly trained government operative who had his mind erased, and now weaselly CIA bureaucrat Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) is ready to cross him out (Why? Who knows.). With no idea who to turn to for help and/or controlled substances, Mike must rely on his particular set of skills to keep him alive through the night.

Something American Ultra does that's smart is simply to play it straight. I mean, not too straight, mind you, as the the entire thing is kind of goofy if you give it more than five seconds of continuous thought. But for the creatives to hang a lampshade on that goofiness would only have made that carefully constructed veneer fall in on itself, so instead, Nourizadeh and Landis borrow a page from the Edgar Wright-Simon Pegg playbook, where the humor in Shaun of the Dead or The World's End doesn't take anything away from the relative terror of their respective scenarios.

In case you have any doubts about how deeply this is homaging the Bourne series, it's set in a town called Liman (as in "Doug Liman," director of 2002's The Bourne Identity), and it features as one of its baddies the toothsome (or in this case toothless) Walton Goggins, who played an anonymous keyboard jockey in that first film. But while it would have been very easy to just be a straight-ahead parody a la any number of '90s Leslie Nielsen vehicles, it attempts the harder task of extricating its humor from the characters' reactions to the situation they find themselves in.

The single biggest asset to making it all work reasonably well is Eisenberg, still a few months away from getting his Lex Luthor on, whose practiced ability to underplay dialogue helps steer him clear from overselling the jokes. Stewart is also quite good here -- though the action movie contortions of the third act do a disservice to the strong character she embodies during the early goings. Britton and Grace are both fun as dueling operatives, and we get fun appearances from Arrested Development's Tony Hale and a very grim Bill Pullman as a mysterious CIA honcho.

Arriving very near the tail end of summer movie season, American Ultra probably ends up benefiting more than it should from the inevitable lowered expectations that come from its particular positioning on the release calendar. As these kind of stoner comedies go, it ends up being kind of a welcome chaser to this summer's spate of cinematic spycraft. As these things go, it's makes for a breezy enough diversion (albeit, an insanely violent diversion) that does some clever things with its core conceit. Not necessarily "ultra," but okay. B-

For more on American Ultra, as well as discussion on Straight Outta Compton, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Fantastic Four, check out the latest episode of The MovieFilm Podcast, either at this link or via the embed below:

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