Controversial opinion confession: Kristen Stewart is a great actor.
I admit I haven't made it through more than 15 minutes of a Twilight movie, but every time I see her on-screen, she's one of, if not the, best things about the movie. Just look at The Runaways, where she does a dead-on Joan Jett impression. Or Still Alice, where she is the only actor in Julianne Moore's league. The woman's got chops, I tell you.
In American Ultra, she plays Phoebe Larson, a working-class girl who lives in nowhere, West Virginia, with her stoner boyfriend Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg). This is the second time Stewart and Eisenberg have been paired up, the first being 2009's engaging slacker comedy Adventureland, and they have fantastic chemistry. Stewart's Phoebe knows that Mike is a hopeless ball of neuroses, but she knows he's the best she's going to do in this godforsaken small town, and so she loves and takes care of him like a puppy. But Mike's actually got very good reasons for his panic attacks. He's a highly trained and brainwashed super-soldier who has had his memory erased and been secreted away in the mountains when the CIA's cost-benefit analysis tipped over into "bad idea" territory. But now, an interagency rivalry between two operatives, Lasseter (Connie Britton) and Yates (Topher Grace), over whose top-secret, brainwashed super-soldier program is better means that dueling teams of assassins are invading West Virginia's dollar store parking lots and stoner dens trying to rub out Mike and Phoebe.
American Ultra is going for the Ghostbusters equation: It wants you to laugh at the absurdity of its premise while also taking it seriously as a threat to the characters, with whom it wants you to sympathize. The screenplay by Max Landis, son of legendary director John, who wrote the hit found-footage superhero movie Chronicle, is a pretty effective spoof of the Bourne movies. As long as American Ultra stays focused on the hapless Mike, the slightly less-hapless Phoebe, and their flights and fights through the rural underworld, it's the dark-but-fun action comedy its setup promises. When they're negotiating with conversion-van-loving drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo) and hiding out in his psychedelic black-light basement, the tone is something like a sillier version of Natural Born Killers. (The underrated Oliver Stone film is also a comedy, but that's an essay for another time.)
But when director Nima Nourizadeh breaks away from their story to the behind-the-scenes intrigue at the CIA, the wheels come off the wagon. American Ultra's biggest problem is that it lacks a good bad guy. Grace is just hopeless as an amoral careerist in the mold of a Silicon Valley brogrammer. He succeeds at being unlikeable, but he's not remotely believable, and that robs the film of the edge of danger it needs to make the jokes land harder. Nourizadeh, who directed the found-footage teenage-party comedy Project X, has trouble juggling the conflicting tones, and so the whole thing doesn't quite gel. But Stewart and Eisenberg seem like they're having a blast, and hanging out with them for 90 minutes makes American Ultra a good time.