American Ultra

There’s no harder month to endure at the movie theater than August. Even runner-up January occasionally provides a quirky, fun movie that surprises… but August? Blech.

So can someone please explain what happened in August 2015? There was not only one (The Gift) but two (Straight Outta Compton) really good movies. And The Man from U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t too shabby either.

And now comes American Ultra. It may be the weakest of the bunch, but it’s still light years ahead of typical end-of-summer fare. Don’t look now, but August might not stink anymore.

Picture Jason Bourne as a pothead, and you’ll be at least headed in the right direction with American Ultra. Jesse Eisenberg is Mike Howell, a stoner dude who spends his days as a cashier at a run-down convenience store in podunk West Virginia. What he doesn’t know is that he used to be part of Ultra, a covert CIA operation that turned petty criminals into trained killers… but that was before they erased his memory.

When a megalomaniacal CIA honcho (Topher Grace) decides to eliminate all traces of Ultra (including Mike and the rest of the former guinea pigs), Mike’s old CIA boss Victoria (Connie Britton) realizes she has no choice but to “re-activate” him, so he can defend himself.

Meanwhile, Mike’s stoner girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) is just as confused as Mike is with his newfound ability to dispatch armed assailants– using only a spoon and a dustpan.

Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) does a nice job amping up the action (and, good gracious, the violence), but it comes at the expense of some finer points, which would have helped make American Ultra a more even, complete movie. There’s gobs and gobs of undeniable chemistry between Eisenberg and Stewart (re-teaming for the first time since 2009’s criminally underrated Adventureland), but woefully little time is spent showcasing it.

The script by Max Landis (Chronicle), meanwhile, is generally fun and certainly full of kickass-ery, but there are so many homages (to everything from Natural Born Killers to Miller’s Crossing to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to even The Big Lebowski) that it ends up feeling more derivative than reverential.

Despite those faults, American Ultra still manages to work. And if nothing else, it adds to the fervent hope (hooray!) that maybe–just maybe–August may no longer be a vast wasteland of movie nothingness every year.

3/5 stars