Movie Review - American Ultra

John Leguizamo (left) and Jesse Eisenberg
in 'American Ultra'
It's Bourne Identity meets Universal Soldier meets The Equalizer, the Denzel Washington version, but with a protagonist who's a pothead. The problem though is that writer Max Landis on the one hand celebrates and satiates in the kind of violence and militaristic over-reach that he on the other hand criticizes and condemns.

The character that represents the heart of the film hits a contradiction, and director Nima Nourizadeh seems to want to be cool and comical rather than stick with a point-of-view that has a true, moral sense.

Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) stars as Mike Howell, a twenty-something who works as a clerk at a convenience store. He likes to smoke weed and draw comic books. His best friend is a drug dealer named Rose, played by a perpetually shirtless John Leguizamo (Summer of Sam and Moulin Rouge!). Mike has no family but he does have a girlfriend, a fellow stoner and clerk named Phoebe, played by a multi-color-haired Kristen Stewart (Twilight and Snow White and the Huntsman).

At the outset, Mike and Phoebe try to take a trip to Hawaii, but Mike's recurring, panic attacks prevent them from hopping on a plane. His inability to do certain things or drift into a stoner-haze frustrates Phoebe. Yet, Mike loves her and wants to make her happy, so he plans to propose marriage via a grand gesture, namely fireworks.

However, all of this is derailed one night when CIA director Adrian Yates, played by Topher Grace (Spider-Man 3 and Predators), orders the death of Mike. CIA agent Victoria Lasseter, played by Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights and Nashville), then races to Liman, West Virginia, to save Mike's life. Fellow CIA agent Peter Douglas, played by Tony Hale (Arrested Development), riffing off his Emmy-winning character from Veep, assists Victoria up to the point of committing treason.

The movie then becomes watching Mike who is certainly no Denzel Washington escape near-death through martial arts and expert ballistics. He's definitely no Jean Claude Van Damme or even Matt Damon under Paul Greengrass' direction. Mike is played by Jesse Eisenberg, a scrawny-looking guy who's best known for portraying the world's youngest and richest, computer nerd. So, watching the least likely person one would assume do karate or high-octane combat and shoot-outs is funny. Having a stoner or a guy who behaves like he's constantly intoxicated on marijuana be in the center of intense action is equally funny.

It's a workable, comic conceit, but it quickly goes off the rails. It veers into territory recently mined by Kick-Ass (2010) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015). The violence becomes ridiculously over-the-top, but, unlike those films, this one tries to maintain a heart and moral sense that just doesn't gel or else contradicts with what it wants its action-scenes to be, which is completely heartless and without morals.

Britton's character Victoria is the embodiment of the heart and moral sense, or she seems to be. Victoria from the beginning is all about saving or sparing people's lives, specifically Mike's life. However, by the end, her argument is that because Mike was able to kill a bunch of people then all is well. It's not okay to kill him but if he kills a bunch of people, then that's fine.

From Mike's point-of-view, it's mostly in self-defense, except the final action scene in a home-goods store. In that last sequence, Mike is on the offense, so he's more going after people. However, in his mind, he's trying to save his girlfriend Phoebe, which would be fine, but it takes Mike and consequently, it also takes the filmmakers too long for these men that Mike is killing to be considered fellow soldiers who are not evil and no different from Mike.

This is exemplified in the final scene of Walton Goggins (Django Unchained and Predators) who plays Laugher, a fellow but opposing soldier. By the end, Victoria decides that what makes Mike's life valuable is because Mike is better at killing than those fellow soldiers, including Laugher, which is completely disgusting.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 35 mins.


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