Why people like to watch people hurt other people is a question too big, or perhaps too distressing, to fully answer. But how people allow themselves to watch people hurt other people is a simpler one. When the fate of the world is at stake, or when righteous revenge is due, or when innocents must be protected, it becomes morally acceptable for on-screen heroes to gouge out eyes or slice throats or slam faces into brick walls. The motive itself often matters less than the fact that there’s a motive at all.
With this idea in mind, American Ultra, the new action-comedy film starring Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Connie Britton, and Topher Grace seems less like a throwaway in the Hollywood shelf-clearing season of late August than a profound comment on the movie-going id. The setup: Eisenberg and Stewart play Mike and Phoebe, West Virginia stoners madly in love and aspiring to not much of anything at all. Then, one night, two menacing men appear in the parking lot of the convenience store Mike works at, and Mike kills them in seconds flat using a spoon. Turns out, he’s an unwitting super-soldier—brainwashed and then brainwiped by the CIA, sent to live in burnout anonymity until a pencil-pusher in Langley (Grace) decides he’s a liability.
As far as pretexts for orgiastic on-screen combat goes, this premise (from Chronicle writer Max Landis) is basically perfect. Mike is both an innocent everyman victimized by forces beyond his control and a totally unbeatable killing machine; he fights not for glory nor even out of an overwhelming determination to survive but simply because he must. It also doesn’t hurt as far as rooting for him goes to be repeatedly reminded that he was just about to propose to the one girl who could possibly understand his painfully neurotic, secretly artistic self. The last time there was as laboratory-pure setup for action antics, it came from Keanu Reaves’s adorable puppy in last year’s insta-cult-classic John Wick.
While that film realized its potential with fabulously arch self-seriousness, American Ultra (under the direction of Project X’s Nima Nourizadeh) is semi-slapstick like the kind seen in Marvel movies, and the result is a mix of mild thrills and middling satire. Eisenberg is as convincing an unlikely hero as he would be in real life; as with all his roles, the funniest moments come when he mutters something offhandedly that you only fully process a moment later. Unfortunately, though, his scenes alternate with those depicting the insufferable, suit-vested Grace arguing with Connie Britton’s compassionate CIA agent over whether Mike should live or die. The film’s conception of evil bureaucracy is so overdone that even the characters seem bored with it, and the scenes at headquarters (where Tony Hale is given little to do as a drone-controlling lackey) recall Men in Black without the aliens or creativity.
Where American Ultra excels is in making use of its Rust Belt exurban setting, dotted with its shabby strip malls and drug dens. John Leguizamo gets some brief but amusing time as a loudmouthed criminal buddy of the heroic couple, whom he hides in a basement painted with a psychedelic-pornographic mural. There’s a twist midway through the film that’s telegraphed in basically every scene that precedes it, but that isn’t unwelcome for the way it complicates what had seemed like a tired gender dynamic. And the grand climax takes place in a Walmart-like superstore that allows for some truly inspired violence and ends up humanizing one of the movie’s villains to a surprising extent.
Resolution comes swiftly and predictably once Mike has been given enough time to acclimate to the revelation of his identity, and an epilogue hints that there might be some Jason Bourne-like franchise aspirations underlying the whole affair. But with its 90-minute run time delivering chuckles and hoots without true suspense, it’s hard to imagine there being much demand for a follow-up. The whole appeal of American Ultra lies in the fact that the protagonist had forgotten he was special. The irony is that after the lights go up, everyone else is going to forget, too.