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Movie review: 'American Ultra' underestimates the potential of its own story

Small-town American angst meets ultra violence in “American Ultra.” At least, that’s supposed to be the joke in the new stoner comedy.

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart are cute and convincing as characters Mike and Phoebe, a slacker couple whose mundane lives are upturned when Mike finds he might be something more than he thought.

Mike is a nervous, unambitious guy who works nights at a convenience store and smokes heavily with his girlfriend, who is the best thing in his life. In one of the funnier recurring jokes, he tries to find the perfect time to propose to Phoebe.

Everyday life is shattered when Mike finds out he might be a government-trained killing machine capable of using anything, including a spoon, as a deadly weapon. Mike and Phoebe go on the run from CIA agents who are determined to round them up, and many violent situations ensue.

The action is on the dirty, low-key side, but there are quite a few fittingly ridiculous moments, such as when Mike decapitates several agents with a dustpan. Most of the humor is derived from the couple’s mild-mannered stoner responses to the over-the-top action, with lines like, “babe, I’m really freaking out, I have a lot of anxiety about this” when Mike is nearly killed by said agents.

Eisenberg and Stewart make a good couple. Their codependency comes off as quite natural; there are a number of funny moments when Phoebe has to focus Mike’s attention. It’s the sort of quirk that longtime couples develop.

“American Ultra” threatens to become a satirical tale of generational discomfort, but never quite achieves full burn. Far too much of the film is dedicated to a subplot that involves infighting among the CIA agents responsible for Mike.

Beyond a vaguely defined sense of ethics, there is never a real reason given for why the CIA faction of the film comes out on top. A good portion of the second act feels like a misallocation of cinematic resources. The mystery and emotion behind Mike’s transformation are much more compelling than the half-baked spy games narrative that explains it.

Mike and Phoebe get into plenty of strange situations, but there seems to be reluctance on the part of the filmmakers to let the scenes play out. All too often the audience is stuck listening to exposition rather than the character interactions, which often turn violent before the scene has a chance to develop much tension.

The protagonists of “American Ultra,” though likable, are stuck in a meaningless construct of a plot, which may be the intended point, but the film never pulls the disparate elements together. The pieces are in place - disaffected millennials, grungy postmodern neighborhood and a morally dubious government authority - but the premise is never fully realized.

Nathan Reynolds is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or on Twitter @yayap001.

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