'American Ultra': Film Review

More dopey than dope.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as stoners pitted against the CIA in Nima Nourizadeh's late-summer action comedy.

Stoners take a bloodbath in American Ultra, a genre mash that's mildly amusing until it can't think of anything else to do besides flop around in the deep end of conspicuous gore. Taking a vacation from more serious projects by playing a couple of lethargic, ambition-free tokers who suddenly find themselves in the middle of a Joe Carnahan movie, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart smoke and say "like" and the F-word a lot and eventually kick plenty of butt in a way that looks to cook up a couple of weeks of buzzy late-summer business with good-times-seeking young audiences.

Those who saw Nima Nourizadeh's moderately successful first feature, the horny-boys gross-out comedy Project X, will have an idea of the excess to expect here, although the commercial- and music video-trained director has thankfully moderated his shaky-cam tendencies this time around. All the same, the script by Max Landis (Chronicle) uses an elaborate wind-up to throw a giant splatterball that delivers more of a big mess than anything coherent or genuinely engaging.

Still, sensation is sensation, and there are enough amusingly dopey discussions, nutty characterizations and creatively spiced servings of violence to service viewers who will probably prefer to see this in the heady state favored by the lead couple, who shack up in Nowheresville, West Virginia, where no-account Mike (Eisenberg) dreams of creating a graphic novel while working the night shift at a bottom-feeder convenience store. It's a toss-up which is more far-fetched — that a young woman who looks like Stewart sticks with this loser no matter what or that Mike (unbeknownst to him) is actually a CIA-trained sleeper agent who will suddenly emerge from his slumber as a slacker James Bond. But we're obliged to buy into both propositions.

The small-town sluggard stuff of the first 20 minutes or so is genial enough and provokes a few laughs by identifying multiple symptom of generational haplessness; it'll be the comedy of recognition for more than a few in the audience. But the film lurches from first to fourth gear when overreaching CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) decides it's time to terminate the useless Mike from the Ultra program, an actual agency initiative from the 1950s designed to reprogram select candidates to become superspies and assassins.

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Yates sends a couple of goons up to hicktown to take Mike out, but Mike's newly awakened powers get the better of them. He and Stewart's Phoebe soon benefit from the partisanship of Yates' older underling Victoria (Connie Britton), which evolves into something like Mad magazine's "Spy vs. Spy" cartoons, except that they're supposed to be working for the same side.

The intermittently wacky, instantly forgettable high jinks leave room for some enthusiastically over-the-top supporting turns by energetic character actors who give their all and then some. John Leguizamo as Mike's ghetto-mouthed local dealer and Walton Goggins as a laughing hyena of a hired killer all but literally bounce off the walls with their amusingly cranked-up antics, while Britton manages to also let it rip when she finally arrives on the scene from D.C.

Even with its tight running time, American Ultra starts spinning its wheels well before the climax, although it's entirely possible that being in an altered state while watching this will keep the target audience giggling at the repetitive antics all the way to the end. As it is, there are incidental pleasures to be had simply in observing the generally more serious-minded Eisenberg and Stewart slumming in a project that's dopey in more ways than one and not caring how unkempt, slovenly and un-movie-starish they look and behave.

The most creative and witty part of the entire film may well be the animated end credits, which have a bracing panache mostly absent from what's come before. 

Production: Likely Story, PalmStar Entertainment, Circle of Confusion Productions
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Lavel Crawford, Stuart Greer
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Screenwriter: Max Landis
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Kevin Frakes, Raj Brinder Singh, David Alpert, Britton Rizzio
Executive producers: Buddy Patrick, Robert Ogden Barnum, Jonathan Gardner, Ray Angelic, Stuart Brown, Tom Rock, Gideon Tadmor, Eyal Rimmon, Steffen Aumueller, Zulfikar Guzelgun
Director of photography: Michael Bonvillain
Production designer: Richard Bridgland
Costume designer: David C. Robinson
Editors: Bill Bankow, Andrew Marcus
Music: Marcelo Zarvos

Rated R, 96 minutes