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Review: 'American Ultra' a clumsy modern action-romance

Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Kristen Stewart star in American Ultra, a stoner-action film that hits theaters Friday.
Jesse Eisenberg, left, and Kristen Stewart star in American Ultra, a stoner-action film that hits theaters Friday.
Published Aug. 19, 2015

Mike and Phoebe are in over their heads in love. Mad, stupid love like Clarence and Alabama in True Romance, when kisses swap spit and blood; theirs and anyone else's in their way. They're so cool.

American Ultra wants to recapture that bloody valentine spirit for the ramen generation, two crazy kids rushing headlong into implausible danger. Stoners, of course, because that's the current foundation for youthful comedy.

But what also evolved in movies is meanness, eroding much of Mike and Phoebe's charm. American Ultra is a clumsy mix of courtship and gunpowder, passion and horror leading to a romantically sick-humored conclusion. The end nearly justifies director Nima Nourizadeh's means of getting there. But not quite.

American Ultra literally begins with promise, essentially a fast-cut trailer for the movie that follows, as Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), shaggy, sweaty, matted with blood, is being interrogated by police. He'll start at the beginning, working at a rural West Virginia convenience store, getting high with Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) at their grunge-chic home, panic attacks when he tries to leave town. The usual for him.

One night a mysterious woman (Connie Britton) walks into the store, reciting words that confuse Mike before leaving. Later, Mike sees two men vandalizing his car. They pull weapons, Mike snaps and kills both with precision, a cup of instant soup and a spoon. Not the usual for him. And just the beginning of the carnage.

It turns out Mike is programmed to kill, part of a CIA experiment overseen by upstart agent Yates (Topher Grace, too soft for this role). Mike's recent attempt to leave town for Hawaii where he planned to propose to Phoebe would be a security breach, so he must be killed. The woman in the store was rogue agent Lasseter, and her words triggered Mike's killer instinct.

From there American Ultra goes from pleasantly implausible to how much does screenwriter Max Landis expect us to swallow? Gunfire and smashing glass begin drowning out Mike and Phoebe's stoned poetry (an early scene in which Mike waxes about a tree and the car that hit it is lovely). Landis drops a second-half twist stretching credulity to its limits, while Nourizadeh ladles the blood.

Eisenberg and Stewart continue their easy rapport from Adventureland, and he displays capable action chops for an indie darling. Britton appears pained to be here, visibly uncomfortable carrying heavy artillery. John Leguizamo makes the most of a one-note gangsta wannabe, while Bill Pullman doesn't show up until after the movie could've ended.

American Ultra isn't True Romance by a long shot (or one point-blank in the face, for that matter). Yet it often draws attention to its desire to be so, down to Mike donning a red tropical shirt for the final showdown, just like Clarence. That isn't cool.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.