In the 1990 sci-fi classic “Total Recall,” Arnold Schwarzenegger is a construction worker with no idea that in his not-so-distant past he was a highly-trained secret agent. Now imagine essentially the same role, but instead with the actor most polar-opposite of Schwarzenegger (OK, not exactly the most opposite; there’s Pee-wee Herman, Michael Cera, and everyone on “Glee”).
Jesse Eisenberg (“The Social Network,” “Zombieland”) is Mike Howell, a quickie-mart clerk and stoner who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in an atrophied West Virginia town where things are comfortably numb until Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton, TV’s “Nashville”) walks into his world spewing strange code phrases meant to activate him. Ostensibly, this has no effect other than to harsh his buzz. But when a senior CIA operative (Topher Grace) dispatches a hit squad to eliminate him, he reflexively responds with deadly moves and is all, “whoa!” having just annihilated them with only a spoon and a cup of noodles.
Though his memory’s been erased, he’s a product of the defunct “Ultra” program and poses a risk to the agency. Picture a mash-up that stars Woody Allen as Jason Bourne and “Three Days of the Condor” with Jeff Spicoli on the run. That’s “American Ultra.”
Eisenberg is hysterical, though playing a neurotic anxiety-laden slacker doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Stewart, I can only say, wasn’t as pouty and irritating as I expected (sorry, Twihards, I am just not a fan).
The stand-out, as usual, is John Leguizamo; he is Mike’s outside-the-law pal Rose who frets about the “monkey disease” Eisenberg is said to be infected with. It’s only a cover story planted by the CIA as an excuse to lockdown the town and draw out Eisenberg and Britton, but Rose’s black-lit basement makes for an interesting sequence.
The film fails to reconcile Howell’s backstory other than that he was a two-time loser the agency selected for an experiment; there is no cliche “my whole life is a lie” moment or much time spent in self-examination; no childhood memories flash back. Maybe that’s a consequence of all the drugs, that he cares about little except to live in the moment. In a way, that’s actually liberating.
No stems, no seeds. Just a high body count and a lot of fun.