Review by Paul Preston
OK, you have homework. See American Made before it leaves theaters!
Not sure why it took me a month to see this re-teaming of the star and director of the fantastic sci-fi pic Edge of Tomorrow, but it was worth the wait. American Made is a damn-near equally entertaining epic with another well-cast Tom Cruise performance driving the whole picture.
I’ve said in these reviews before that I love white-guys-in-trouble movies. The Wolf of Wall Street, The Hangover, War Dogs, Gold, I’ll take all of it. I don’t even necessarily root for them, there’s an unseemly side to all the characters in these movies where I don’t know if I want them to get away with what they’re doing, but I CAN’T STOP WATCHING.
In American Made, it’s late in the ‘70s and Cruise plays Barry Seal, an American commercial pilot who has a knack for smuggling cigars into the U.S. This catches the eye of the C.I.A., who wants him to fly runs for them, photographing potential Communist camps in Central America. His skill leads them to ask for more and more, from playing courier to Noriega to running guns for the Contras. All the while, Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel have discovered Seal’s talents and want him running drugs for them back to the states. Seal needs money, so he obliges (this is the unseemly side of our white guy in trouble). About a third of the way through American Made, Seal looks at the camera and says something to the effect of, “You ain’t gonna believe the shit that happens next”. He is so right, this is an outrageous story that is the biggest reason to recommend it. Barry gets deeper and deeper into shit with the Cartel, the government and more and it’s always fast-paced and entertaining.
Given the high level of nonsense our government gets involved in concerning nation building and starting wars in other parts of the world to benefit ourselves, I buy all of this. Why not? Seal’s account of his parade of nefarious activities sanctioned by the U.S. falls right in line with all the dirty games that have come to light in the last thirty years since this story took place. With that, the film is also aggravating where it needs to be, bringing up all the Reagan-era B.S., meddling in the Middle East, that tainted his presidency and got innocent people killed. Director Liman handles all of that with equal incisiveness.
The film runs and guns often with handheld camerawork to heighten the brisk pace of Barry’s lifestyle, but they don’t cheat us of great technicolor hues of the ‘70s. The clothes and vehicles are as perfectly sorry as the late ‘70s/early ‘80s would have them.
In supporting turns, Domnhall Gleeson plays the C.I.A. agent who enlists Barry. Gleeson plays him likeable, always making that coy move where the spy “doesn’t know” what illegal thing you’re doing or “doesn’t see” that bag of money that you’re free to take. I don’t know Sarah Wright’s work up to now, but she’s quite good as Seal’s wife Lucy and Alejandro Edda gets the majority of lines of the Cartel’s top three men, and he neatly blends charm, menace and swagger.
And what can you say about Cruise? The guy is just a flat-out movie star. He carries a HEAVY load of a movie and makes it look fun and effortless (don’t get me wrong, Barry exerts a TON of effort, it’s just that Cruise never once struggles with the character). There are tight close-ups where you can see Barry’s gears turning and there are wide shots where Barry’s in full-body flail, and Cruise gets it all right. He owns the comedy and doesn’t short-change the drama.
It should also be noted that Cruise isn’t in the mode that made him famous, that of “the winner”. In the ‘80s, he was the best fighter pilot, the best bartender, the best race car driver, the best pool player. He was great at it, but it was always “the best”, and he even half-spoofed that persona as the best spy in Knight and Day. Back in 1999, he hinted at a vulnerability in Eyes Wide Shut that he revisits every now and then and each time he does, it sits on him even better and he gets more comfortable in it. Sure, he still Jack Reachers it up in high status roles and has a blast as Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. He’s good at that. But his return to the hotshot role in The Mummy didn’t work, that was a role he’d play in the ‘80s. He’s better off here, exploring the more dimensional character. Bill Cage in Edge of Tomorrow was the closest Cruise has played to a straight-up loser in some time. Of course, by the end, he goes into full Tom Cruise, but he never looked miscast when portraying Cage in either spectrum of his heroics. Barry Seal is great at what he does, but he’s cursed with never being in charge, so there’s a panic about him, even when he’s “winning”. Cruise plays it well, and I hope more troubled characters are on his horizon.
The last thing to note about Cruise and Seal is that if you’re fed up with the “Tom Cruise thing” and maybe you’re one of the people who skipped American Made, leading it to a lukewarm domestic box office (as ever, though, it did double the business overseas, giving American Made a take two and half times the size of its budget) – this isn’t the Tom Cruise thing, that usual character that might’ve turned you off in the past. It’s a layered character dealing (and getting swallowed up by) a lot of shit. Come back and give Mr. Days of Thunder another test drive, this is a great vehicle for your return to greatness as Tom Cruise explores his.
Directed by: Doug Liman
Release Date: September 28, 2017
Run Time: 115 Minutes
Distributor: Universal Pictures