Ultra lame: ‘American Ultra’ fails to captivate audience

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Ultra lame: ‘American Ultra’ fails to captivate audience





By Matt Maielli / Staff Writer

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“American Ultra”

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Connie Britton

Grade: C-

Everybody can be a superhero. Even your local junkie.

That’s the theme of “American Ultra,” the latest in the super-spy genre. The movie follows Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), a phobia-ridden mini mart owner and repeat drug offender who gets in hot water with the law ­­— but not quite how you’d expect.

Mike, formerly Agent Howell, gained super-spy instincts as part of an experimental government program. But when the program failed, the CIA wiped Mike’s memory — but not his skills — reserving him as a “sleeper agent” who could someday pop back into action.

That day comes as Mike is forced to defend himself against a new breed of successful CIA experiments, “Tough Guys,” created by Agent Yates (Topher Grace). Yates is out to eliminate Mike, an asset of the previously failed program under Agent Lasseter (Connie Britton), in true secret government fashion: by assassinating him. However, as Mike’s memory begins to return in flashes, he uses his Bourne-like abilities to protect him and his girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), from the ensuing onslaught of agents.

Whereas most summer blockbusters take place over a substantial timeline, Max Landis’ (“Chronicle”) script spans the course of a single night, making it an anomaly within the genre.

Eisenberg and Stewart, who were previously paired as stoner screw-ups in “Adventureland” (2009), seem sub-par at first glance but then reveal their characters’ intentional lack of backstory. As the CIA reveals details about the characters’ pasts, their performances deepen, with 2-D characters turning into 3-D stony-faced killers.

With director Nima Nourizadeh (“Project X”) at the helm, the action is visually inconsistent. A shaky camera and quick cuts ruin shots and obscure scenes. The pace is similarly jarring, stopping and starting as characters yell something akin to “What is going on?” after scenes.

The film makes an early attempt at emphasizing the “weapons” that Mike uses to dispatch mercenaries, usually whatever is in grabbing distance — a spoon, a cup of hot noodles and a dustpan, among other obscure items. As the movie progresses, it fails to make them stand out. It’s comparable to Q presenting Bond with new gadgets and then viewers never seeing those gadgets again.

As the action fluctuates, so do the jokes. Some are great, like Yates incredulously asking his sergeant how Mike killed two men with a spoon. Others are downright insulting, with scenes where Yates and Lasseter use Mike’s “sleeper” status as an excuse to use the phrase “stillborn baby” as a punchline. “You’re coming after my stillborn baby?” is a hard line to handle in context, nevermind out of context.

Overall, Grace’s antagonistic Yates strikes somewhere in the middle of comically over-the-top and excessive, with few laughs in between.

The movie is, for the record, an action-packed romantic comedy, exemplified by the oddest marriage proposal in action movie history — and possibly rom-com history — which begins with Yates’ CIA goons doing battle with Mike and Phoebe and ends with the couple — spoiler alert — getting tazed.

Especially annoying is Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as a toothless mercenary named Laughter, who laughs while hunting his targets. This is supposedly a commentary on current movie baddies, but his underdevelopment instead pits him as the very cliche it’s trying to critique. Unfortunately this isn’t solely Laughter’s problem — the film’s attempt at humor via mindless, obvious cliches is what does it in.

At best, “American Ultra” could become a niche, B-movie cult classic, likely remembered as the experimental cousin of “Pineapple Express” (can you imagine Seth Rogen in a Bourne sequence?). It’s a shallow dive when it should’ve been a cannonball, spending too much time discussing itself, saying “Hey, watch me do this dive,” instead of jumping right in and going for the full, campy splash.

It may be an original work amid summer reboots and sequels, but “American Ultra” ultimately struggles with juggling its multi-genre workload. Sadly, this assassin is a little off the mark.

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