“American Ultra” Offers Eisenberg’s Mad Skills, and Not Much Else

American Ultra

American Ultra (Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

He’s a stoner! But wait, he might be so much more. What’s that spoon doing stuck in the throat of the man in front of him? Who knew that dopey, hapless Mike Howell was so handy with cutlery? That about sums up American Ultra: jokey and ultra-violent. It’s too bad that it’s not enough of either to entirely work as entertaining pop culture. It’s fun, at times, and so not completely without merit, but it’s so often not even successful on its own terms that it hardly warrants a trip to the theater. I’d wait for it to come out to come to the home-viewing option of your choice. And then I’d see if there are other options, first.

Jesse Eisenberg (The End of the Tour) plays Mike, and he’s by the far the best thing about the film. All awkward gawkiness, Mike is so consumed by anxiety that he can only really interact with the world if he’s stoned. He lives with his extraordinarily understanding girlfriend Phoebe – played by a perfectly acceptable Kristen Stewart (Clouds of Sils Maria) – and as the film opens (after an opening scene that hints at the mayhem to come before flashing back to three days earlier), the two of them are trying to take a vacation to Hawaii. Unfortunately, Mike (yet again) is too panicked to fly, and so back home they go, to their normal humdrum life. And then, without warning, we get a satellite shot of mopey Mike, smoking weed outside, and learn that he may be more than he seemed (which we already knew, given that opening scene).

Soon, warring CIA agents Connie Britton (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Topher Grace (remember him?) and their surrogates are battling over Mike’s fate, some wanting to kill him, some to rescue him. Except that Mike may not need any rescuing, since he’s got mad skills, as it turns out. With shades of The Bourne Identity and The Long Kiss Goodnight – among other sources – the film soon tells us what we’ve long since figured out for ourselves, and we’re on our way to the blood-soaked craziness promised in the film’s first few minutes. Most of the action is incomprehensible, but there are those moments where Eisenberg gets to deliver a line or two that shows how much he can do with very little. It’s quite a fine performance, stuck in the middle of a very mediocre film.

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