September 29, 2017
There’s no doubt Tom Cruise knows how to entertain. In an iconic career that has spanned more than 35 years and shows no sign of slowing down, he has starred in (and later produced) some of the most recognizable American films, with very few missteps along the way (I’m looking at you, The Mummy). Like the character he plays in American Made, opening this weekend, you can count on Tom Cruise to deliver.
From the first moment we meet Barry Seal, it’s clear this guy’s a riot. On an overnight flight for TWA, he gets bored and pumps the brakes to wake everyone up. Struggling to keep the laughter out of his voice, he apologizes over the speaker for “turbulence.”
It’s a small thing, but it tells us a lot about who Barry is: he’s a guy who likes to joke around, feels supremely confident as a pilot, and who’s probably up for pretty much anything. American Made is based on the true story of Seal who was originally recruited by the CIA to photograph Communists in South America, but ended up as a major contributor to the success of the Medellin cartel led by Pablo Escobar. Barry is happy to help his country and truly feels loyal and patriotic, but he also doesn’t mind getting rich – and I mean super rich – off his work for the cartel. He’s fearless and mouthy, and that combination leads to both his success and his eventual downfall.
There are a few familiar faces in the American Made cast, but it’s Cruise’s movie, and the perfect opportunity for him to remind audiences how he earned his star in the celebrity sky. His swagger and sense of adventure are well established in both his personal and professional life, but Cruise also has impeccable comedic timing and a presence that belies his famously short stature.
Domhnall Gleason, as Schafer, Barry’s CIA contact, is the only person in the cast to match Cruise step for step, and Gleason continues to be the absolute best in every role he plays. He’s impossible to look away from and plays Schafer with such gleeful abandon, it’s easy to forget Gleason is a British import and not a life-long, die-hard American.
Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow, Mr & Mrs Smith, The Bourne Identity) and cinematographer César Charlone (City of God, The Constant Gardener, Blindness) rely heavily on Dutch angles, rack focuses, and so many lens flares you’d think you’re watching a JJ Abrams movie to reinforce the light, fun tone of the film. The edit is jumpy, but perhaps intentionally so, as the audience is reminded they are hearing Barry’s side of the story via home video tapes recorded after the ordeal was over, and he may not be the most trustworthy narrator.
The one real problem with American Made is that there’s so much ground to cover, there’s no time for nuance. It feels rushed in some places yet drags in others. The Barry we meet at the beginning of the film is pretty much the same guy who meets his end in the final scene.
American Made steers clear of politics for the most part, with just a hint of cynicism about the kind of hero America might “make,” and the kind of patriotism that would allow someone to go through all that Barry does and still believe America to be “the greatest country in the world.”
By contrast, Netflix’s current series Narcos takes a more in-depth look at both the Medellin cartel’s development and what was happening on the American law-enforcement side in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Barry Seal makes an appearance on that show as well, as a sideline character who doesn’t even warrant any spoken lines. Those years when America was fighting the War on Drugs were a fascinating time in history with many layered, complex players on all sides. Even after seeing American Made, I’m not convinced Barry Seal was one of them.
In his mind, Barry was on a free-wheeling, rolling in the money, hero’s adventure that allowed him to fly kick-ass planes and rub shoulders with some of the most influential people in the world. Like the actor who plays him, he earned a reputation as “the crazy gringo who always delivers.”
American Made probably won’t end up on any “best of” lists at the end of the year, it may not even be a blip in Tom Cruise’s already crowded highlight reel, but if what you’re looking for is pure spectacle in a slick package that doesn’t require you to consider how cynical the title may actually be, all while watching one of the most entertaining actors of our time do his thing, you can count on it to deliver, and deliver big.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5
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