MOVIE REVIEW: Can “American Ultra” Turn Jesse Eisenberg Into an Action Hero?

One of the perks of being a Film Critic is that I get to take friends to the movie screenings with me. They love it and usually repay me with cocktails afterwards. Sometimes though, I can’t FIND anyone to see a movie with me because no one is interested in it. That was the case with American Ultra, so I had to see it alone. One friend even said, “The one with Kristen Stewart? Ugh, PASS!” That surprised me because I was excited about this movie. I’ve been a fan of Jesse Eisenberg ever since Zombieland and American Ultra seemed like the perfect vehicle for his talents.

Eisenberg plays Mike, a hapless stoner who is perfectly content working at a small town convenient store. He lucked into a gorgeous stoner-girlfriend named Phoebe (Stewart), who is way out of his league but takes care of him anyway. They live in slacker Utopia until the day Mike is “activated” and his past as a Sleeper Agent comes back to haunt him. This is where the fun really kicks in because Mike is even more surprised by his new skills than the audience. Mike and Phoebe don’t have time to explore them though because someone wants to kill them both and time is running out.

There is an embarrassment of great talent in American Ultra. Connie Britton plays a beat-down C.I.A. Agent while Topher Grace gives us his best baby-faced sociopath. John Leguizamo and Lavell Crawford show up as drug-dealers but I didn’t get enough of either one of them. That brings me to the biggest mistake American Ultra makes: Director Nima Nourizadeh lets the violence take over and pushes the comedy to the backseat. Once the bullets start to fly, most of the humor comes from Mike’s surprising skills but a little juice to the writing could have made this film less of a one-trick-pony. Especially when you have great comedic talents like Tony Hale and the aforementioned Lavell Crawford hanging around. This turns American Ultra into a pulpy, gory action-flick and not the comedy I was hoping for.

That said, I still really enjoyed American Ultra. It is a blast to watch Jesse Eisenberg’s Mike go from lazy-loser to full-blown badass. I also loved and totally bought the sweet relationship between he and Phoebe (Eisenberg and Stewart also starred together in 2009’s Adventureland). Yes, that “UGH-Kristen-Stewart” (as my friend calls her) does a fantastic job in this, which should help her take some big leaps AWAY from those vampire movies. One-dimensional writing and gaping plot-holes aside, I still had a blast at American Ultra so I’m giving it a B-. A quick reminder though, to all the filmmakers out there: MORE LAVELL CRAWFORD, PLEASE!

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