AMERICAN ULTRA: 3 STARS. “How about a young, stoned Jason Bourne?”
You can imagine the pitch for “American Ultra.”
“How about a young Jason Bourne?”
“Hmmm… it needs a twist, something to make it fresh.”
“How about a young, stoned Jason Bourne?”
“Like Cheech and Chong and Robert Ludlum had a baby? Bingo!”
The movie is three days in the life of Mike and Phoebe (Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart). Young and in love, they live in small town Liman, West Virginia. When she isn’t working at a local bail bond joint and he’s not clerking at a rundown Cash ‘N’ Carry, they spend their days getting high and riffing on Mike’s idea for a comic book about an astronaut ape.
Meanwhile in Langley a midlevel CIA bureaucrat (Topher Grace) is looking to close the file on the abandoned Ultra Program, a government project that offered third strike drug offenders a chance to become part of an experimental program in return for their freedom. They were turned into highly skilled assassins. Trouble was, it didn’t work. The only success story was Mike, but when the pressure got to be too much for him, his memory was wiped and he was given a new identity.
Enter stoned Mike.
For five years he floated through life on a cloud of marijuana with no memory of his former life. When two killers show up in Liman to eliminate him his old instincts kick in and Mike turns from friendly stoner to lean mean killing machine. Still, he doesn’t revert completely. “I have a lot of anxiety about this,” he says as the body count mounts.
At the center of “American Ultra” are Eisenberg and Stewart, reteamed for the first time since 2009’s “Adventureland.” Both are fine actors—if you need convincing watch him in “The End of the Tour” or her in “The Clouds of Sils Maria”—and while neither are stretched as performers, they leave vanity at the door and have fun in the world director Nima Nourizadeh and screenwriter Max Landis give them to cavort in.
Strong supporting work from Connie Britton as Mike’s sympathetic CIA handler balances out the wackier performances by John Leguizamo as Mike’s mile-a-minute drug dealer and laughing killer Walton Goggins. The over-the-top turns fit the feel of the film, but Grace’s shrill sociopath is pitched a bit too high, even for a movie where someone is killed with a dustpan.
The violence in “American Ultra” often feels gratuitous—we’re told Mike singlehandedly kills seventeen people—but the look of stoned amazement that drifts over Eisenberg’s face each time he pulls off some feat of derring-do is worth the wanton bloodshed.