Set in a West Virginia backwater, American Ultra is a comic-book movie that has the distinction of not being based on a comic book. Silly, violent and unashamedly over-the-top, American Ultra makes for a late-summer oddity -- fun but not too much.
In trying to enter cult-movie territory, director Nima Nourizadeh manages a neat trick: He casts Jesse Eisenberg in an action-oriented role in which he seems less agitated than he did in such recent movies as The End of the Tour. (If you haven't seen End of the Tour, it's worth catching Eisenberg as a writer who sweats his way through interviews with novelist David Foster Wallace.)
Here, Eisenberg plays Mike, a neurotic underachiever with a job at a convenience store. Mike's so prone to bouts of anxiety that he can't even get on a plane for a trip to Hawaii with his live-in girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Mike had planned to propose on the beach.
As it turns out, Mike is no mere pot-smoking slacker with anxiety issues. He's been programmed by the CIA as a sleeper agent. With his memory wiped clean, Mike has no idea that he's a CIA "asset" in waiting.
Mike surprises himself with sudden bursts of butt-kicking physicality after he's activated by a sympathetic CIA agent (Connie Britton) who wants to keep him from getting killed.
Mike isn't being pursued by a foreign enemy, but by a newly appointed CIA boss (Topher Grace).
Caught in a bureaucratic middle, Mike is part of a program that Grace's character opposed and which Britton's newly demoted character championed.
Working from a script by Max Landis (Chronicle), Nourizadeh spares no effort in demonstrating that he's making an entertainment in which violence frequently is given a comic spin. Dustpans become lethal weapons, for example.
American Ultra delights in refusing to take aim at a single target. Put another way, the movie is an eclectic hodgepodge. John Leguizamo shows up as a low-level criminal who sells illegal fireworks. For no particular reason, Leguizamo sounds as if he's auditioning for a role in Straight Outta Compton.
In keeping with a comic-book tone, Walter Goggins plays The Laugher, a CIA-programmed killer who breaks into laughter without provocation. He relentlessly pursues Mike.
Eisenberg and Stewart, who worked together in 2009's Adventureland, whip up some genuine romantic chemistry, even as the movie goes overboard trying to show just how clever it can be with its ample displays of violence.
Still, Eisenberg and Stewart are game to be battered and bruised, and when the animated closing credits roll, American Ultra confirms what we already knew: It's not to be taken seriously.
Hey, if we hadn't seen movies like this before (remember Kick-Ass?), American Ultra might have had more kick.