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Santa Maria Sun / Film

This weeks review

'American Ultra' is like 'The Bourne Identity' meets 'Pineapple Express'




Where is it playing?: Movies Lompoc, Parks Plaza

What's it rated?: R

What's it worth?: $6.00 (Anna)

What's it worth?: $6.50 (Glen)

User Rating: 0.00 (0 Votes)

Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a stoner-slacker who unbeknownst to himself is actually a sleeper agent for a secret but now suspended CIA program. When his ex-handler Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) learns Adrian Yates (Topher Grace), another agent now in charge, plans to terminate Mike and hence bury the defunct program, Victoria makes Mike operational so he can protect himself. It becomes clear that his constant pot use has disrupted his programming, but when Adrian’s agents come for him, his training takes over and makes him unstoppable. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and written by Max Landis (Chronicle), the film also stars Kristen Stewart as Mike’s girlfriend, Phoebe Larson; John Leguizamo as Rose, his pot dealer; and Bill Pullman as Krueger, the only person at the CIA with the power to control the situation. (95 min.)

Glen: Think of American Ultra as a comic mash-up of The Bourne Identity and Pineapple Express, with a little of The Manchurian Candidate and Smokin’ Aces thrown in. The film certainly doesn’t lack energy. It opens with a bruised and bloodied Mike handcuffed to a desk, and in flashback, we witness his routine stoner lifestyle with his girl Phoebe, learn of his anxiety about leaving his small Virginia town, meet his drug dealer Rose, and then all hell breaks loose and doesn’t stop for the rest of the film. It’s a pretty fun romp but also a pretty implausible story, and it plays that way—a stoner comedy with a high body count. Eisenberg works well in the role, playing Mike like a good natured but anxiety-ridden ditz. Without Phoebe, he probably couldn’t function. For her part, Stewart is believable as Mike’s love interest. She sees in him a wounded kitten who means well but can’t really get himself together. They’re both a mess, but it works. The problem with a framing device like Mike’s opening scene, cuffed to a desk, is you know he’s going to make it, so as a viewer, I never felt any real suspense or worried for his safety. Instead, I just sat back and watched this hapless loser mow through his enemies. The lack of real danger made the film feel pretty lightweight, but for a breezy summer romp, you could do worse.

Anna: You certainly lose some suspense when the first scene of an action film shows the protagonist alive and safe, but at least American Ultra made the journey back to that interrogation room entertaining. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and Eisenberg’s Mike is pathetic but funny, more loveable loser than anything else. Neither Mike nor Phoebe seem to be particularly ambitious: He works a monotonous and routine job at a rundown convenience store, and she mans the desk at a bail bonds office. They spend their time getting stoned, listening to records, and talking about the adventures of Apollo Ape, a comic book character that Mike creates adventures for in his head and through drawings. Mike seems to have continued trouble with the local sheriff, and we’re told he spends many nights in a holding cell, presumably for trolling around town while smoking dope. Phoebe acts not just as a loving girlfriend, but as a caretaker, coddling Mike through his many panic attacks that seem to be over very little, if anything at all. Mike is ready to take the next step in their relationship and get on one knee, but the crazy series of events that unfolds continues to get in the way of him finding the “right moment.” Overall, it was fun watching an unlikely action hero outwit the CIA’s mission against him.  

Glen: The film also has a few twists and turns that will keep you guessing, mainly to do with the CIA, which is portrayed as a bunch of reckless idiots with more power than they have the brains or ethics to manage. Leguizamo’s patented manic energy is effectively used in his drug dealer role, and there’s some humor regarding his two criminal associates Big Harold (Lavell Crawford) and Quinzin (Sam Malone). Mostly, this is the Jesse Eisenberg show, and while not as effective as his turn in Zombieland, his nebbish shtick works well enough. He’s certainly an unlikely action hero, which is the whole point. Beside that, there’s not much to say about this film that won’t give away the few secrets not revealed in the trailer. If you’ve got 95 minutes to kill and reading a comic book seems too hard, American Ultra will do.

Anna: The film has to go somewhere, and while it isn’t anywhere particularly shocking, it keeps things rolling along at a quick pace leaving little room for the audience to ask questions. I found Topher Grace particularly repugnant in his role, arrogant and annoying to a T. While the storyline isn’t paper thin, there isn’t much more to it than an excuse for blood, bullets, chase scenes, and fireworks. There are some particularly sweet, quieter moments toward the beginning of the film between Mike and Phoebe, as well as a scene between Mike and one of the men tasked to kill him that I really enjoyed as another side of this mostly quickly paced action flick. It’s not cinematic genius, but I can say I enjoyed the ride and grew fond of the group of misfit characters that triumphs in the end.

Sun Screen is written by Sun contributor and New Times Staff Writer Glen Starkey and his wife, Anna. Comment at