American Ultra

(2015) ** R
95 min. Lionsgate Pictures. Director: Nima Nourizadeh. Cast: Connie Britton, Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace.

/content/films/4829/1.jpgConspiracies are for nut jobs. Or that's what they want you to think. Anyone with an informed sense of history knows, of course, that many conspiracies are real and present, but which ones? To the frivolous end of action comedy, American Ultra riffs on our government's Project MKUltra, a.k.a. the CIA's mind-control program. And the movie has all the impact of one of those Illuminati memes. "Yeah," you'll say, "I've heard that one before."

For American Ultra is The Bourne Identity with a pothead spin and Jesse Eisenberg in place of Matt Damon, a bit like Get Smart was to James Bond (in fact, there's a joke in Ultra cribbed from a Get Smart catch-phrase formula). There's some tired, glib satire about the CIA's nefarious techniques, from MKUltra to surveillance and drone warfare. There's plenty of lightning-fast, built-to-shock violence. Oddly, though, the most impactful element here turns out to be romance, beautifully set up, confounded, and paid off in a climax that shouldn't surprise us but cleverly manages to do so. It's too bad more of American Ultra couldn't do the same.

Eisenberg plays Mike Howell, a sleeper agent who's not only undercover but unconscious. In the ghost town of Liman, West Virginia, Mike serves as the cashier at the Cash-N-Carry, surrounded by the junk food he's no doubt craving from his chronic intake of the chronic. At home, Mike shares a messy apartment with longtime girlfriend Phoebe Larson (Kristin Stewart)--"the only good thing that's ever happened to me." Their relationship is getting serious, despite Mike's collection of neuroses, including crippling panic attacks that keep him from ever following through on vacation plans with Phoebe. 

Turns out the attacks are part of Mike's self-protective programming, a fact revealed when sympathetic CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) reactivates Mike's spy training to save him from unsympathetic CIA agent Adrian Yates (Topher Grace). In order to clean up after the brainwashing program, Yates sends a kill squad of brainwashed agents to eliminate Mike. But it turns out Mike is still the best of the best, even though he's pot-addled and deeply confused about how he got into this mess.

Director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) assembles a fine cast to realize the blandly clichéd script of Max Landis (Chronicle). Eisenberg and Stewart make an interesting couple, made more so by the increasingly complex dynamic that evolves between them as secrets surface. Britton does maternal caring like no one else, Grace gives great weasel, and the great character actors John Leguizamo (as a drug dealer) and Tony Hale (as a weak-willed CIA officer) put all their creativity into enlivening predictable scenarios. American Ultra at times pokes fun at the genre's cliché in amusingly productive ways (as when a baffled Mike posits a twist the movie doesn't have in store, asking Victoria, "Are you my mother?"). More often than not, though, this conspiracy isn't the real deal, but rather an elaborate distraction.

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