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'American Ultra' Film Review: Action-comedy sends the super soldier formula up in smoke

August 21, 2015Ben MK

If you watch a lot of movies, you'll know that the US government has a long and colorful history of trying to create super soldiers — from experimenting on a scrawny WWII recruit in Captain America: The First Avenger, to reanimating deceased Vietnam vets in Universal Soldier. But what if they tried to turn a pot-smoking slacker into a one-man army? Well that's exactly what happens to Jesse Eisenberg's character in American Ultra.

As a hapless loser named Mike Howell, Eisenberg plays an anxiety-prone convenience store clerk who loves only three things in life: smoking weed, working on his unpublished comic, and his live-in girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart). You could even say Mike loves Phoebe so much that he can't remember what his life was like before he met her — something that may have less to do with Phoebe and more to do with the fact that he used to be a guinea pig for Uncle Sam.

You see, before ever setting foot in the dreary, West Virginian town of Liman, Mike was a test subject in the CIA's top-secret "Ultra" program, the government's misguided attempt at turning ordinary civilians into living weapons. Then the whole project was shuttered, and Mike's memory was wiped. But now the CIA has decided that Mike's more of a liability than an asset, and they've marked him for death, leaving his fate in the hands of his former handler, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), who knows his only chance for survival lies in the activation of his latent combat abilities.

What follows could be thought of as one part Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and one part The Bourne Identity. But even that doesn't properly describe what Project X director Nima Nourizadeh and Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis have cooked up here.

Of course, American Ultra contains its fair share of bloodshed and mayhem, as Mike is forced to use his deadly know-how to defend himself and Phoebe from the onslaught of Ultra-programmed psycho killers sent by CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). But what's surprising is how much screen time this genre-warping film actually devotes to fleshing out Mike and Phoebe's relationship. There's a genuine weight to Eisenberg and Stewart's performances, even though the supporting cast (which also includes John Leguizamo and Bill Pullman) are mostly tasked with chewing the scenery. And in the end, that makes American Ultra more than just your run-of-the-mill stoner's action-comedy. As a matter of fact, you needn't even be baked to enjoy it.

American Ultra releases August 21st, 2015 from Elevation Pictures. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content. Its runtime is 1 Hr. 36 Mins.

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