The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


American Ultra

Late August is an unusual time for movies. The most heavily-hyped blockbusters have mostly come and gone, so new releases tend to be junk that couldn't hack it in a more competitive time. But you can also find some of the most interesting stuff here, too movies that take chances or are a little left of center. American Ultra is just such a picture. It uses quirky, punk rock energy to tell a lovers-on-the-run story that aims to hit the sweet spot Tony Scott's True Romance nailed so eloquently back in 1993. While not on the same level, it nevertheless has its own quirky charms.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a stoner convenience store clerk in a dead-end West Virginia town. He has a dull job, crippling panic attacks that prevent him from traveling, and an idea for a comic book that he doesn't know what to do with. He also has a girlfriend, Phoebe (Kristen Stewart), he wants to propose to. One night, a woman named Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) comes into the store and speaks to him in what sounds like gibberish. In fact, she is a high-ranking government official, and he is an agent. Her words activate all the lethal skills he didn't know he had. Suddenly, Mike finds himself stuck in the middle of a conflict between Victoria and a rival official, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). He has to fight for his life, when all he really wants to do is get high and be with Phoebe.

The idea of a highly-trained agent being awakened from a government-induced secret identity is nothing new. (The Bourne Identity executed something similar quite well back in 2002.) American Ultra finds a fresh approach to the concept by marrying it with both a stoner comedy and a romance. It's really the latter part that makes the movie successful. The jokes, while often funny, are wisely underplayed so that the relationship can be the plot's driving force. Underneath it all, this is the story of a young man trying to come to terms with the fact that the humdrum, uneventful life he's been stuck in is not one of his own making. As Mike begins to realize that he isn't really the wasted loser he imagines himself to be, it makes him reevaluate whether his feelings for Phoebe are any more genuine than everything else.

Eisenberg and Stewart, who previously co-starred together in Adventureland, create a sweet, sympathetic vibe between their characters that grounds the weed jokes and intermittent action sequences in something a little more substantive. The screenplay by Max Landis (Chronicle) gives them plenty to work with, often pausing for a scene that adds some depth to the relationship. (There's a great bit in which Mike finds a metaphor in a car that has crashed into a tree; the later payoff to this moment is poignant.) Even at its silliest or most frenetic points, American Ultra lets its romantic heart shine through. When the world is crazy, the picture says, having someone who loves you by your side is the surest way to survive.

The movie's intentional shifts in tone (which, admittedly, aren't always super-smooth) might be off-putting to some viewers, who may want it to stick to one thing. But if you can get into its weird little vibe, there's fun in the unpredictability of American Ultra. The film includes, among other things: a scene set in a room full of black lights that make Mike and Phoebe look oddly evil; a nifty fight in a store, where food items and other pieces of merchandise become lethal weapons; a delightfully crazy supporting performance from Walton Goggins as a maniacally laughing killer; and a wild animated end credits sequence. Director Nima Nourizadeh, whose Project X was the worst film of 2012, certainly isn't afraid to experiment.

Perhaps the biggest problem American Ultra faces is that the story's other important relationship the one between Victoria and Adrian isn't nearly as engaging as the one between Mike and Phoebe. The reasons for their rivalry are utterly generic, which means that Adrian never morphs into the detestable bad guy that he really ought to be. (This is not to fault Topher Grace, who scores some laughs.) It feels like all the energy was invested in telling the heroes' story. Perhaps Landis and Nourizadeh didn't realize that development of the tension between the two government officials actually would have deepened the main characters' arc even further. And while the movie intriguingly mashes action flicks, stoner comedies, and romances together, it never satisfies as thoroughly as the best examples of any of those genres.

Ultimately, though, the film is entertaining because of the acting and the way it fearlessly marches to the beat of its own drummer, for better or for worse. It's the kind of thing that feels refreshing in the dog days of summer, when the superheroes have finished their adventures and the dinosaurs have been put back in their paddocks. American Ultra is a real odd duck, and I like odd ducks.

( out of four)

American Ultra is R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes.

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