Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: "American Ultra"

"American Ultra" is a quirky take on an old saw. This action comedy stars Jesse Eisenberg as a seemingly normal guy who discovers one day that he has amazing skills, including the ability to take down armed assailants with his bare hands. He wasn't even aware he could do this, until he does it.

We've seen this idea before with "The Bourne Identity," "The Matrix" and countless other flicks. The notion holds appeal because maybe anyone of us could be revealed as the badass chosen one, too.

The twist here is that Eisenberg is seemingly the last guy on Earth who could secretly be a trained super agent. It starts with the actor's small stature, unimpressive physique, soft features, trembly voice and disappearing chin. If you looked up "beta male" in the dictionary, it'd probably have his picture as an illustration.

Screenwriter Max Landis ("Chronicle") layers on the reinforcing characteristics. Mike Howell is an unassuming stoner who clerks at the Stop-n-Go, gets high with his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), draws an amateur comic starring Apollo Ape and Chimp the Brick, and does little else. He's wracked with crippling phobias, including a violent aversion to leaving his town of Liman, West Virginia.

As the story opens, they are about to fly off on a Hawaii trip where Mike plans to pop the question. (Hawaii? Fancy ring? Must've been a lot of double-shifts at the Stop-n-Go.) But he's unable to get on the plane, and worries that he's just slowing Phoebe down. But then some big guys in black camo show up out of nowhere and try to kill him, and Mike easily takes them out armed with nothing more than a piping hot cup o' soup and a spoon.

Here we have the classic trope about the master spies deciding that a rogue agent who hasn't done anything to anybody in years needs to be eliminated -- even if it requires expending many more agents' lives and the entire operational budget to do it. Listen, spooks: if Jason Bourne decides he wants to retire on the beach, let him get fat on barbecue and piƱa coladas.

Topher Grace plays the maniacal young CIA chief who goes after Mike, and he's got a small army of his own twisted agents to do it. Of course, he always sends them against clerk-boy in twos and threes, instead of calling the whole gang in at once. On several occasions he's literally got a bunch of his "tough guy" spies sitting around doing nothing while he picks a pair to be the latest sacrificial lambs.

Lesson two, spooks: if you have 17 guys to dispatch against one, why in the world would you not just send all 17?

Connie Britton plays the good CIA gal who recruited Mike (unbeknownst to him) and is still looking out for him. Walton Goggins, so great on the "Justified" TV show, is the Laugher, one of the evil toadies. John Leguizamo turns up as your friendly neighborhood drug dealer, and Tony Hale plays a nebbishy desk agent caught between loyalties.

It's a fun ride, and director Nima Nourizadeh keeps things moving at a snappy pace. Eisenberg and Stewart have nice chemistry together in between all the chases and dismemberments. (Though I recommend the little-seen "Adventureland" if you really want to see some romantic sparks fly between them.)

"American Ultra" succeeds under the wallflower charms of Jesse Eisenberg and a clever script. Sometimes even pathetic losers can kill you with a spoon, so be nice.

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