Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Topher Grace, Connie Britton, Walton Goggins, John Leguizamo, Bill Pullman, Tony Hale, Stuart Greer, Michael Papajohn, Monique Ganderton, Nash Edgerton, Paul Andrew O'Connor, Freddie Poole, Ilram Choi, Lavell Crawford, Sam Malone
Written by: Max Landis
Directed by: Nima Nourizadeh
MPAA Rating: R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, drug use and some sexual content
Running Time: 95
Date: 08/21/2015

American Ultra (2015)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

High Spy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Opening today in Bay Area theaters, American Ultra has been promoted as a stoner comedy with a little action on the side, something like Pineapple Express or Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.

But in actuality, director Nima Nourizadeh focuses on action first and foremost. As with his 2012 debut feature Project X, he revels in gleeful excess, following every sharp object or speeding bullet as it punctures, splits, or slices into human flesh, sending sprays of blood flying.

The blood then settles just about everywhere, on clothing, hair, teeth, eyebrows, etc., and stays there, drying, for the bulk of the movie.

This has the effect of killing the laughter that was so deftly set up by Max Landis's script in the movie's opening act.

It also, one would assume, has the effect of killing the buzz of any potheads who turn up hoping for another The Big Lebowski, Half Baked, or Smiley Face. (Whoa... dude...)

But there's a bright side. The movie's central couple, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg) and Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) — the actors were previously paired up in the terrific Adventureland — are kind of adorable.

Eisenberg is completely genuine, and together they project and honest-to-goodness "true love" vibe that makes you want to root for them.

Living in a small West Virginia town, Mike loves nothing more than to spend time with Phoebe, cartooning and smoking pot, when he's not working at a small, little-frequented market.

They attempt to take a vacation in Hawaii, but Mike suffers a panic attack that prevents him from getting on the plane. Later, at work, two thugs attempt to mug him, but some kind of long-suppressed super-spy training surfaces and he manages to quickly dispatch both.

The CIA discovers that he has been re-activated. The nasty, bullying agent Yates (Topher Grace) launches a full-scale mission, including the use of an armed drone and more than a dozen trained killers, to get him. Grace casts a sour note with his screeching portrayal of this hateful character.

Meanwhile, agent Lasseter (a wonderful Connie Britton), who was in charge of Mike's program, tries to protect him.

John Leguizamo is another asset in the movie, playing a chatty drug dealer named "Rose," and getting a laugh with nearly every line reading. It's too bad he isn't onscreen more.

He suggests that a better movie based on this material was possible. It may seem ironic, but toning down this outrageous stoner comedy might have been a good idea. Sometimes a little, like, goes a long way, you know?

Lionsgate released a pretty good Blu-ray that makes the image and sound really pop. There's a director commentary track, about 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, and a couple of short, funny bonuses. It also includes a DVD and a digital copy.

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