Imagine crisscrossing the amnesia, espionage thriller “The Bourne Identity” with the stoner saga “The Pineapple Express,” and you’ve got the nitty-gritty of “Project X” director Nima Nourizadeh’s “American Ultra” starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kirsten Stewart, John Leguizamo, and Bill Pullman. Although it remains far from original with its formulaic content, this violent, offbeat, 96-minute, R-rated epic delivers one startling surprise after another, not the least of which is the unusual casting of the loquacious, sissified Eisenberg as a weaponized lethal hero. At the same time, “American Ultra” reunites Eisenberg with his “Adventureland” co-star Kristen Stewart of the “Twilight” franchise. Just as Eisenberg plays rough and tumble with blood on his hands, Stewart isn’t far behind as an action heroine, too. While Eisenberg kills in self-defense with considerable qualms, he conducts himself at times as if he were imitating Richard Dean Anderson’s Angus MacGuyer, wielding everyday objects with devastating ferocity, when he isn’t pondering his mysterious memory lapses like Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne. Action thrillers don’t make the grade unless the heroes and heroines have to thwart challenging adversaries. As the bad guys, Topher Grace and Walton Goggins are appropriately villainous, and “Independence Day” actor Bill Pullman makes an appearance as their CIA superior. Director Nima Nourizadeh doesn’t let the action slacken for a second. Incidentally, the Eisenberg hero doesn’t discover his true identity until about half-way through his nimbly-staged thriller. Eisenberg has never pulled off anything as physically assertive as “American Ultra” because he lacks the debonair looks of a romantic leading man. Ironically, the fact that he doesn’t think of himself as an action hero until he finds himself dispatching one heavily armed thug after another makes his performance happily believable. Moviegoers that prefer the kind of indie-styled comedies that Eisenberg makes may abhor “American Ultra,” while moviegoers who crave melodramatic massacres may loathe Eisenberg’s casting.
Shaggy-haired Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg of “Zombieland”) runs the cash register at a grocery store in the Podunk town of Liman, West Virginia. Mike spends more time behind the register illustrating a graphic novel about an ape in an astronaut outfit called Apollo Ape than interacting with customers. Indeed, we rarely see anybody venture into his store. When Mike is neither clerking nor drawing, he gets high on marijuana cigarettes that he rolls by hand for himself and listens to vinyl albums on his turntable. He shares his house with his equally lackluster girlfriend, Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart of “Camp X-Ray”), who holds down a job at a bail bonding office. Mike suffers from delusions of paranoia, and he often experiences meltdowns. For years he has struggled to leave Liman, but he finds himself unable to realize his dream without grief and anxiety assailing him. Essentially, Mike is a petty criminal who has gotten into trouble so often in his hometown that the local constabulary know him by his first name and keep an eye peeled for him. Meanwhile, he peeks at an engagement ring that he has gotten for Phoebe and wonders when he should spring the question. Mike purchases his pot from a zany drug dealer named Rose (John Leguizamo of “John Wick”) who lives in a psychedelic house. Altogether, Mike doesn’t look like he could harm a gnat in his worst nightmare.
Meantime, at C.I.A headquarters, agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton of the ABC-TV series “Nashville”) learns from an anonymous phone call that the top-secret Ultra program that she established to create sleeper agents is about to be liquidated. Victoria’s rival at the Agency, smug-minded Adrian Yates (Topher Grace of “Predators”), has decided that the time is ripe to eliminate anybody involved with Ultra. Actually, the Ultra program has been shut down since most of the recruits went whacko and died. As it turns out, one recruit survived and surpassed everybody’s expectations. Imagine poor Mike’s consternation when he wanders out into the parking lot and spots two guys rigging up a bomb to his automobile. Although the two guys are much better built than Mike, our hero kills both of them in next to no time. He uses a spoon to stab one of his assailants in the neck and kill him. Mike has no idea how he has managed to perform such incredible feats. He remembers an oddball woman that entered his store earlier in the evening and spouted some gibberish at him that puzzled him. Victoria Lasseter was the lady and she was trying to warn poor Mike about his impending doom at the hands of CIA assassins. No sooner does the opposition try to exterminate Mike with extreme prejudice than he surprises them with his impeccable combat skills. At one point, pinned down behind a refrigerator in his kitchen by a barrage of gunfire, Mike slings a skillet above his head, pops off a round at it, and his bullet ricochets, and cuts down the trigger-happy soldier armed with an assault rifle!
Jesse Eisenberg appears out of place in this blood and gore, tongue-in-cheek actioneer. Nevertheless, he handles himself competently in the close-quarters combat scenes. A villain plunges a screwdriver through one of our hero’s hands, but Eisenberg clobbers his foe into submission with a hammer. “Justified” villain Walton Goggins has a field day as a psychotic henchman that Yates dispatches to dispose of our unlikely hero. The Goggins character is named Laughter, and Laughter tangles with Eisenberg’s Mike repeatedly throughout “American Ultra.” Initially, when they confront each other, Mike smashes in Laughter’s front teeth. Meantime, Kristen Stewart doesn’t lose her cool as level-headed Phoebe. Occasionally, she gets to whip a villain, but she gives another of her typically icy, inexpressive performances. In her best scene, she reprimands Mike for locking up Laughter in a jail cell, but forgetting to retrieve an automatic pistol he left behind. Predictably, Laughter grabs the gun and blasts away at their fleeing backs. Aside from the splendidly orchestrated action scenes that resemble something Asian filmmaker John Woo of “Broken Arrow” might stage, director Nima Nourizadeh keeps surprising us with Eisenberg’s audacious heroism and shocking sadism.

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