Nima Nourizadeh’s new action comedy American Ultra is literally high concept: What if Jason Bourne were a total stoner? The result is not just mayhem but madcap massacres, most within the bounds of acceptable black humor. The fast pace pushes the comedy and action to a new high for late-summer releases.
Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a dead-head convenience store clerk in a dead-end town. The only positives in his life are his dream of creating a popular comic book and his obsession with his perfect girlfriend. Kristen Stewart’s Phoebe Larson never complains and is always understanding of Mike’s personal and mental flaws, such as panic attacks about leaving the familiar comfort of town.
Phoebe’s understanding is put to the test when teams of government assassins suddenly target Mike – and just as suddenly wind up dead at his feet. In short order, both discover Mike is a brainwashed sleeper agent with full-blown Jason Bourne skills. The mystery then becomes whom to trust and who is behind the onslaught of slaughterers. Mike dispatches them as fast as they come, with whatever knickknack is at hand, like some murderous MacGyver.
Adding humor and local color to the story are John Leguizamo as a drug dealer/strip club owner with a Mutt and Jeff pair of lackeys, and Stuart Greer as a good-old-boy sheriff. They would have added even more texture and dimension to the story if further developed and expanded. Also notable are television’s Connie Britton (“Nashville”) and Tony Hale (“The Veep”), who lend the young lovers a hand, while Topher Grace (“That ’70s Show”) maneuvers to destroy them all.
The story moves crisply, although the montage preview at the beginning deflates the scenes’ impact because it tips off too much of the action to come. The movie’s second major flaw lands at the end, bookending the film with key problems. The denouement feels gutted and too familiar, assassinated by adherence to formula. In a movie with such an original concept, an equally original finish would have left a strong final impression and better served the tease for a sequel. Unfortunately, the perfunctory close undercut the final impact.
Overall, though, for a summer popcorn flick, American Ultra kicks butt and takes names. What it lacks in moment it makes up for in momentum. Catch it on the down-low or the up-high.