Film Review: "American Ultra" 

The bong identity

I don't remember absolutely everything that happened last month, so I suppose it's possible that at some point during July, I was recruited by a shadowy government agency, trained as an efficient killing machine, and then deposited into my humdrum little life after a thorough memory wipe, not knowing when or how I'll be activated for duty. Hey, if we're to believe works like "The Manchurian Candidate," "Shutter Island," or "The Bourne Identity" -- and, really, why would movies ever lie to us? -- sleeper agents are pretty much standard operating procedure in the world of espionage. But what about a stoner agent? Probably not the smartest idea, yet as director Nima Nourizadeh's fun, feisty, and defiantly violent spy flick, "American Ultra," reminds us, it's almost always the person whom you least expect.

Oscar nominee Jesse Eisenberg (2010's "The Social Network") and Kristen Stewart (still best known for the "Twilight" films) star as Mike and Phoebe, young, flannel-clad West Virginia slackers in love with marijuana and each other, though not necessarily in that order of importance. As the film opens, Mike's plan to whisk Phoebe to Hawaii and propose gets derailed by a panic attack, which apparently happens whenever Mike tries to leave town. So it's right back to his overnight job at the Cash-N-Carry, where a mystery woman walks up to the counter and repeats a series of bizarre sentences to the puzzled Mike. But one Styrofoam cup of ramen and two dead guys later, Mike and his hired-killer instincts have apparently been activated, even though Mike has no memory of learning how to end someone's life with a spoon.

Unlike Mike, however, we've already met the woman. As played by Mrs. Coach herself, Connie Britton (Texas forever!), she is CIA Agent Lasseter, and she's gone rogue to protect Mike from her slimy, profane boss, Agent Yates (the perpetually underappreciated Topher Grace). Yates has decided to tie up loose ends (read: murder people) in the Ultra Program, which created sleeper agents like Mike. Most of "American Ultra" unfolds as a smart-ass action movie, with Mike and Phoebe making their way through the now-locked-down town of Liman (perhaps an homage to the director of "The Bourne Identity"?) and trying to elude the agents sent to kill him. But thrumming through the blood and bullets is the surprisingly swooning love story between Mike and Phoebe, made all the more romantic once Phoebe's own secrets are revealed.

It obviously helps that the two leads already have an entrenched, easy chemistry thanks to 2009's stellar "Adventureland," but Eisenberg seems to bring out the best in Stewart, her typical chill giving way here to a rather passionate vibe gorgeously anchored by Phoebe's clear-eyed choices. (It would have been nice if the men weren't using her as a pawn, but small steps, I suppose.) Eisenberg is excellent here, too, as a tentative young man certain of his love but desperately trying to convince himself that he's worthy of hers. Besides Britton and Grace, look for ace-in-the-hole John Leguizamo as Mike's paranoid weed dealer (but not Mike's fantasy-football friend); Tony Hale (TV's "Arrested Development") as Lasseter's man on the inside; an enigmatic Bill Pullman; and Walton Goggins (I miss you, "Justified") and his mesmerizing teeth as the psychotic Laugher, another sad casualty of the Ultra program.

More spy movie than stoner flick, "American Ultra" boasts visuals cartoony enough to make you think the film was adapted from a graphic novel, but in actuality it's from the mind of screenwriter Max Landis (he also scripted the upcoming Mary Shelley revamp "Victor Frankenstein"), who takes a pretty standard story and puts his own youthful, kinetic spin on it. Now, not every plot development is airtight -- it bothered me that Mike went to work after missing the plane to Hawaii; wouldn't he have gotten his shifts covered? -- and a crucial character like Agent Yates is given no dimension beyond the moustache-twirling one. (More Bill Pullman probably wouldn't have killed anyone either.) But Nourizadeh gets some sassy action sequences out of people who aren't generally known for such things, and as dog-day diversions go, you could do way worse than "American Ultra."

And now some sad news: this week will be the last for Dayna Papaleo. She’s moving on to bigger and better things, and you’ll be able to find her cooking up delicious desserts around town. City is grateful that she decided to return to film writing earlier this year, and we know the paper won’t be the same without her invaluable contributions. So here’s hoping she’ll promise to make a return appearance once “Furious 8” rolls around.

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