Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) sits in an interview room, bloody and bruised, handcuffed to the table and waiting to be seen. When a C.I.A. operative enters the room, he stops tapping his foot and observes the photographs set out before him and finally speaks, supposing the agent – and those watching behind the two-way mirror – would like to know the story behind how he got here. He rewinds his recent memories in his mind until he can explain how he was your basic stoner in a dead end town, with a low income, low energy job at the local store and no ambition whatsoever. Well, he had one ambition, and that was connected to his girlfriend, the equally unmotivated Phoebe Larson (Kristen Stewart)…
Yes, if Mike wants anything in his life it’s to be married to Phoebe, he has bought the ring and is just awaiting the right moment to pop the question in this comedy thriller that unlike writer Max Landis’ previous screenplay for Chronicle, proved tough to find an audience in its original release. Maybe it was down to everyone who had seen it comparing it to The Bourne Identity (or indeed The Long Kiss Goodnight), for which it was only going to fall short, or maybe they found the combination of Eisenberg and Stewart unappealing in spite of their Adventureland collaboration doing rather well a few years before, or more likely it was the thought of the duo combining forces to play action heroes that they balked at. Whichever, only their diehard fans had much good to say about it.
Eisenberg had grown his hair for his role, apparently believing that would make him more like a stoner in looks, but he didn’t really pull that off and didn’t suit it, causing a distraction that the rest of his performance was not able to rise above. Combine that with a fighting style that was hugely helped by fast cutting rather than any particular skill, and you could observe that the part of an unlikely killing machine was assuredly emphasising the unlikely aspect, possibly at the expense of the movie’s credibility. Stewart was better, but hampered by the twist in the middle of the story that anyone with any savvy would see coming a mile away, another distraction that forced you to ponder just how convincing she was in her screen persona as well as her co-star.
This left an odd impression, in that you had to accept that the central pair were not supposed to be convincing as expert counterintelligence agents or whatever they may or may not have been, yet you could only agree that damn right they were unconvincing. At this point Landis would have been expected to ramp up the comedy, as this was sold as a laugh a minute thriller, but as it played it was anything but, in effect with its many low key character scenes far more serious and sincere about the situation than it needed to be which had you musing that maybe you had been sold a pig in a poke, this was actually a straight ahead suspense and action flick coasting on the bizarre casting as a gimmick, but stick Steven Seagal in this plot and with a few tweaks this could have happily gone straight to video for the Friday night beer and pizza crowd.
If it wasn’t really a comedy, then what was it? As the title suggested, it embraced the counterculture paranoia about the security services, which at least was something to appeal to the stoners as Landis tapped into their latent (or overt) concern that they were being watched by sinister government forces, though if they were it was to keep a check on their drug intake rather than their threat to law and order. The MK Ultra programme was a mind control project undertaken by the C.I.A. from the nineteen-fifties onwards, using all sorts of dodgy procedures (including use of consciousness-altering drugs) to try and create a new kind of agent. Needless to say, it created a new kind of mental casualty instead, but here we were meant to believe Mike was a genuine success, or at least he would be if he could be ordered about once he had remembered his shady past and understood why he had mad fight skillz. It’s not a bad idea, but it was mixing two ideas that had been done to death and not coming up with a decent enough reason to proceed; by no means terrible, it was diverting enough, just far less exceptional than you imagined was the intention. Music by Marcelo Zarvos.