Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: American Ultra

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in a muddled secret-agent comedy.

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American Ultra
Lionsgate

What if Jason Bourne hadn't been a waterlogged amnesiac? What if, instead, he had simply been too stoned to remember his dark past? It's a cute idea, and American Ultra almost makes a go of it. But the movie can't decide whether it wants to be a full-on action flick or a goofball comedy, and it never finds a unifying tone.

Jesse Eisenberg, master of quirks and fidgets, plays Mike Howell, a small-town pothead and 'shroom enthusiast living in slacker contentment with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Mike works in a local convenience store, passing the wee hours rolling joints and doodling cartoons for a vaguely projected graphic novel. One night a woman in trench coat and shades walks in with a strange message. "Echo Choir has been breached," she whispers. "We are fielding the ball." Baked as usual, Mike asks, "Is that a lyric from something?" Turns out it's not.

Here, the movie—which started out on a rom-com note with Mike and Phoebe at home—suddenly turns into a bloody action fest. Standing outside the store spooning up ramen noodles from a cup, Mike is attacked by two men he'd spotted loitering near his car. To his own surprise, he whirls right into ninja battle mode, expertly deploying the only weapon at hand to take down his attackers. On the phone to Phoebe, he shouts, "I spooned this guy!" Then his car blows up.

Soon we learn that the trench-coat woman, whose name is Victoria (Connie Britton), is a CIA agent who once ran a secret program to create super-soldiers out of social misfits like Mike. The program was ultimately shut down, but Mike remains unwittingly on call in his tiny hometown. Now Victoria's rival, an over-wound CIA nutcase named Yates (Topher Grace), is intent on terminating this last vestige of her old program in order to launch a new one of his own, staffed with homicidal psychopaths. (Chief among these are a scary machine-gun chick played by Monique Ganderton and a cackling loon called The Laugher, played by Walton Goggins, who's always fun to have on hand.)

Eisenberg and Stewart still have the easy chemistry they brought to the 2009 Adventureland (although Eisenberg is too attentive an actor to be completely convincing as a guy in a constant pot fog). And Topher Grace is pretty funny as a sizzling megalomaniac. There's also a neat psychedelic fight in a black-lit disco party room, and a couple of amusing action gags (one involves a bullet and a frying pan). But with so many guns, knives, hammers, and grenades being brought into play, the attendant blood-flow muddles the humor. Equally unhelpful in this regard is John Leguizamo's off-the-rails performance as a babbling white b-boy drug dealer, which has the unfortunate effect of recalling James Franco's similarly annoying turn in Spring Breakers.

The story never gels, but the movie just keeps going. We're never in much doubt about where it's headed, but even with a 95-minute runtime, it takes too long to get there.

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  1. what manner of sadistic, mustache twirling villain would name their child Topher?

    1. The manner who would name him Christopher.

  2. Isn’t this sort of the premise of Dude, Where’s My Car? except Kristen Stewart’s character was a chick?

  3. It’s either this or Straight Outta Compton. Which for Saturday night?

    1. High school football starts this weekend. That sounds like a better bet than either of those two.

      1. The thing I’m watching is of secondary importance. They have food and alcohol beverage service right to your chair (which reclines) in my local theater.

  4. The history of “Spy Spoof” movies is littered with disaster. Even the ones I personally happen to like are, objectively awful. One of two have gained general acceptance, but my personal reaction to the Austin Powers trilogy is to reach for a tire iron; I want to take the Powers character back behind a barn and bash his tiny little brains out.

    The Flint films are awful. THE PRESIDENT’S ANALYST is an interesting mess. Johnny English is Austin Powers warmed over. The I SPY film had a tenth of the TV series talent and none of its charm. There are moments of pure comedy gold in the ’60’s CASINO ROYAL (“It’s depressing that the term ‘secret agent’ has become synonymous with ‘sex maniac'”), but the film itself is a rolling train wreck, wastes most of its resources, and goes on far too long.

    In the end, I can think of one Spy Spoof film that works; THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU. I’m sure there are one or two others, but they escape me at the moment.

    1. In the end, I can think of one Spy Spoof film that works; THE ASSASSINATION BUREAU. I’m sure there are one or two others, but they escape me at the moment.

      I don’t have any real feelings either way about the genre, but I will say that I really enjoyed Kingsman: The Secret Service.

    2. Have you seen “If Looks Could Kill – 1991”

      I thought it did a pretty good job of playing off the gadget heavy Bond years.

  5. We have tentative plans to see The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tomorrow night, but this looks like it’d be a little more fun.

    1. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. sucked. Only thing that’s any good is the clothes.

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