American Ultra lost me in its opening scene and never got me back. This is one of those movies in which the ending is immediately revealed and we work back to that dramatic moment teased early on, a method that is almost always a storytelling mistake. Doing this undermines any drama or tension the film may have, essentially forcing us to think “How did he get there?” instead of the much-preferred “Where is he going?” — all for no good reason.

Then it gets worse. Not only do we learn where the protagonist, Mike (Jesse Eisenberg), will end up, director Nima Nourizadeh (Project X) then gives us a reverse-chronological rapidly edited flashbacks that show moments from the film all the way back to three days earlier. The big question is, “Why?” There’s no reason to structure the story this way, as it adds nothing to the narrative aside from inevitability. The filmmaker’s hope is that the opening tease will get us hooked and intrigued; seeing a battered and bruised Mike in handcuffs about to be interrogated in a brightly lit room, followed by close-ups of random pictures, isn’t nearly enough to draw us in.

Poor setup aside, the script by Max Landis (Chronicle) did have potential. Mike is a longhaired stoner loser do-nothing who isn’t even trying to get his act together. His girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) accepts him for who he is, even though she knows they’re going nowhere together. In fact, there’s really nothing interesting about them until Mike quite easily kills two dudes outside the grocery store where he works.

Then we find out Mike was the subject of a failed CIA experiment to create a super-agent, and now he’s in danger. Desk jockey Victoria (Connie Britton) began the now-dormant program, and CIA ladder-climber Adrian (Topher Grace) has swooped in to clean up her mess. But Victoria feels protective of Mike (for no good reason), and “activates” Mike so he can defend himself against Adrian’s assassins.

Yes, the plot is Harold & Kumar meets The Bourne Identity. There are too many plot holes to count, Grace isn’t a convincing villain, and it’s not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. In casting Eisenberg and Stewart, the right choices were made for actors who could mix comedy with action and dramatic moments. Still, it doesn’t gel.

Part of the reason is the aforementioned flawed setup, and another is the excessive violence. We hear bones cracking, see blood splatter, observe death by all sorts of household appliances. It’s a bit much for the otherwise silly premise of a stoner who fights back against a secret government experiment gone wrong. A lighter PG-13 rating would’ve suited Grace’s “oh jeez, come on!” villainous approach better, allowed for more comedy, less violence, and a better overall experience.

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october, 2021