‘American Ultra’ fails to capitalize on premise

By Bob Bloom
“American Ultra” is propelled by a single premise that expends itself rather quickly.
The movie is a simplistic, cartoonish yet violent feature about a young stoner, Mike Howell, played by Jesse Eisenberg, who, unbeknownst even to himself, is a highly trained CIA agent with multiple and deadly skills.
The attraction, of course, is watching the nerdy Eisenberg transform into a lethal machine who uses anything at hand — spoons, frying pans, a cup of soup — to eliminate a team of special operatives sent to kill him.
Aside from Eisenberg, the movie has nothing more to offer.
Kristen Stewart plays Phoebe, Mike’s long-suffering girlfriend.
You guess why she has stuck with him long before her reasons are revealed.
And that is the film’s biggest drawback. “American Ultra” is very predictable.
You can nap during the film and still know what is going on when you awake.
The film lacks nuance; everything is telegraphed and predictable.
The vast majority of characters are one-dimensional. You know within the first three minutes who is going to wind up in a body bag by the final credits.
That said, the action and fight scenes are well choreographed. And you get an odd exhilaration watching Eisenberg, who usually portrays geeky and cerebral characters, go all Liam Neeson on the big screen.
The humor rests on Mike’s shocked reactions to the mayhem he creates, but even those laughs begin to diminish after the third or fourth encounter.
Stewart’s Phoebe is nondescript because she does little more than continually stand by her stoner.
Topher Grace is clownish as the gung-ho and ambitious CIA official who orders the elimination of Howell, so he can impress his superiors and advance in the agency.
The supporting cast includes a group of fine character actors including Walton Goggins, Connie Britton, Bill Pullman and John Leguizamo.
Unfortunately, director Nima Nourizadeh does not use most of these actors, especially Leguizamo, to the best of their potential.
“American Ultra,” like the “Kick Ass” movies, mixes graphic violence and comedy. The difference is that in the “Kick Ass” films you recognized the chemistry that bonded the protagonists.
No such evidence is revealed here.
“American Ultra” is a 95-minute end-of-summer filler. It’s a movie you see if you’ve seen everything else at the multiplex. It’s one of those films you can wait to see when it’s released on DVD.
As my colleague, Matthew Socey, pointed out, a positive aspect of “American Ultra” is that it will prepare audiences for Eisenberg’s bad-ass portrayal of Lex Luthor in next year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.”
Bloom is a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. His reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and The Film Yap (filmyap.com). He also reviews Blu-rays and DVDs. He can be reached by email at bobbloomjc@gmail.com or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Other reviews by Bloom can be found at Rottentomatoes: www.rottentomatoes.com.

1½ stars out of 4
(R), graphic and bloody violence, language, drug use, sexual content

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