American Ultra Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace. Directed by Nima Nourizadeh. Rated R. Opens Friday.
Jesse Eisenberg: action hero? That’s the premise that the uneven action-comedy American Ultra. wants its audience to accept, and to the movie’s credit, it manages to make the idea seem almost credible. It helps that Eisenberg’s character, small-town stoner Mike, also happens to be the product of a secret CIA program that turned him into an ultimate weapon, although he doesn’t know that. When Mike is targeted for termination by a sniveling CIA bureaucrat (Topher Grace), the agent in charge of his defunct program activates him so that he can defend himself.
The early parts of American Ultra, as affable burnout Mike hangs out with his equally easygoing girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) and tries to work up the nerve to propose to her, are pleasant and sometimes funny, showcasing Eisenberg and Stewart’s strong chemistry. That tone initially carries over to the couple’s efforts to avoid the government assassins sent to take Mike out, thanks to the amusing contrast between their laid-back mannerisms and the danger they find themselves in. But as the movie focuses more on action and conspiracies and becomes increasingly violent, the sweetness of the love story gets lost in flashy nihilism. Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) and writer Max Landis (Chronicle) put so much effort into creating badass moments that they lose sight of the core of the story. As Mike maims and kills more thugs in increasingly brutal ways, the low-key stoner comedy becomes an ugly, cynical bloodbath. Eisenberg ends up a convincing action hero, but the soul of his character gets discarded along the way.