“American Ultra” is a crazy rush of sharply orchestrated madness. A bloody valentine, the New Orleans-area-shot action-comedy goes over the top in a gleefully entertaining style.
Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart star as Mike and Phoebe, the young couple at the center of accelerating action. Mike and Phoebe share a small house in a nondescript West Virginia town. He’s a stoner who works in a convenience store. She’s employed at a bail bondsman’s office.
Despite Mike’s panic attacks, it seems he and Phoebe are simply happy together, content with their little lot in life. In voiceover, Mike explains that they make the perfect messed up couple, he being the messed up part.
Director Nima Nourizadeh, screenwriter Max Landis and the cast and crew of “American Ultra” do a convincing job of showing the mundane details of Mike and Phoebe’s small-town existence. It’s easy to forget that the movie opens with the beaten and bloody Mike chained to a table in an interrogation room.
Following the interrogation-room tease, which shows that something inexplicable happened to Mike, “American Ultra” cuts back and forth between their West Virginia town and CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.
At the CIA, Topher Grace’s Adrian Yates is an agent whose power goes to his head. He designates Mike, a participant in an abandoned CIA program some years before, for assassination.
The CIA wiped Mike’s memory clean before it placed him, witness-protection style, in West Virginia. The town and Phoebe are all he knows. Or all he thinks he knows. Mike is a sleeper agent. His deadly skills lurk in his unconsciousness. Say the secret words and Mike’s inner killer will be activated.
Eisenberg’s Oscar-nominated performance in “The Social Network” as cocky Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg stands in deep contrast to his portrayal of Mike, a gentle, wistful, often helpless and even pathetic loser. The actor’s versatility comes in handy when Mike begins to grasp what a badass he really is.
Stewart’s Phoebe rolls in step with Mike’s gradual, comic transformation. Phoebe has secrets, too. Their chemistry together is aptly sweet and sour.
The couple’s love story, tested so severely by seemingly undefeatable forces, serves as binding thread for “American Ultra,” possibly the bloodiest love story since “Natural Born Killers.”
Mike and Phoebe have an alarming, military asset-rich nemesis in Yates, Grace’s CIA agent gone rogue. As the obsessed Yates unleashes a whole squad of killers on Mike, the psychosis Grace injects into his gonzo character almost glows.
Connie Britton (TV’s “Friday Night Light” and “Nashville”) co-stars as Victoria Lasseter, Mike’s former handler at the CIA. The actress plays her comedy dry with touches of emotion as she works clandestinely to save Mike and thwart Yates.
As extreme and frequent as the violence in “American Ultra” is, this stylish, high-energy romp hits its target. Blending action, nightmare, comedy and romance, “American Ultra” entertains on a thumping, escapist level.