At this point there’s an entire adult generation who thinks of Contra as a retro video game first and a group of right wing militants backed by the US government second. That simple fact might lead you to be surprised that the CIA, White House, and US Government did some really sketchy things in the late 70s and early 80s in the name of spreading democracy in South America. American Made is the story of one of these really sketchy things, and the guy who made it even more sketchy by running drugs for the likes of Pablo Escobar.
Obviously these true story films are always embellished a little, but American Made is just so ridiculous it has to be true and that’s where its fun comes from. This isn’t really a true story film that does anything all that interesting, but it knows its story is insane enough to float on its own. Of course pulling in Tom Cruise to Tom Cruise all over the place helps too.
Director: Doug Liman
Release Date: September 29, 2017
Back in the late 70s Barry Seal (Cruise) is flying for TWA, and doing some Cuban cigar smuggling on the side when he’s approached by a CIA handler, Monty ‘Schafer’ (Domhnall Gleeson), to begin some extra-legal flights over South American countries to take pictures of communist militant groups. Seal, a bit of an action addict, agrees and goes undercover without telling anyone including his wife. Turns out flying to South America every day gets noticed by certain types of people, and the Columbian drug cartels recruit Seal to smuggle cocaine to the US. Seal, who has almost no moral compass of any sort, agrees and the CIA turns a blind eye because he’s getting results. Things just get crazier from there.
American Made marks the reunion of director Doug Liman and Tom Cruise after their stellar partnership on Edge of Tomorrow (seriously, go watch this damn movie if you haven’t yet). Liman appears to be the only director working these days that can pull old Tom Cruise out of his malaise and make him deliver the performances we know Tom Cruise can deliver. American Made has Cruise donning a subtle southern accent that perfectly drifts in and out of his speech while knocking the pants off the charming, yet somewhat dark Barry Seal. Constantly whipping around on adventure with a boyish grin, Cruise is perfectly cast for the role (aside from actually being waaay to old), and surprisingly keeps the character’s layers nuanced as everything starts spiraling out of control. This is the Tom Cruise we’ve been missing since the actor decided he just wanted to make a bunch of action movies, a decision that culminated in The Mummy (shudder).
Outside of of Cruise’s performance the film rides on its story more than anything else. It is a great story full of “you can’t make this shit up” moments that are both humorous and painful to watch. Liman sadly doesn’t do anything special with the movie, however. It’s pretty straight forward in its storytelling, with Cruise offering some narration via the form of old VHS tapes he’s recorded of himself telling his story. The motif, however, never holds together and often seems abandoned, so it becomes more of a gimmick and exposition carrier than an intriguing way to tell the story.
It’s really too bad that Liman doesn’t push any boundaries with the film since it raises a ton of questions about morality and the U.S. government’s actions in the 70s. Seal is not a good person at all. He smuggles thousands of pounds of drugs into the country, makes so much money he’s forced to bury it in his backyard, and even causes some deaths. Yet the film never dives into the conflict between the good he does with the money, and the evil. It’s all a crazy trip for him and the audience only sees that. While this probably makes for a more entertaining movie it seems like a massively missed opportunity, especially when you have Cruise trying to pull that out of the character despite the movie’s direction.
It’s good to see Tom Cruise back in a role where he actually needs to act other emotions than that feeling when something just exploded and you have to jump out of a plain without a parachute — or into a plane or on top of a plane or driving next to a plane. Actually he flies a lot of planes in this movie too. Some of them nearly crash. I think Tom Cruise has a problem with planes. Someone should talk to him about that.
The fact that I’ve gone off on a Tom Cruise/plane tangent should tell you all you need to know about American Made because I’ve clearly run out of things to say. It’s wholly enjoyable, and wholly forgettable. You’ll be intrigued by the story, but not by the film as a whole. It’s a great way to knock off Tom Cruise’s acting rust, but it’s not a movie that’s going to make you love him again. Hell, it’s pretty emblematic of the Hollywood film system itself now that I think about it. I guess you could say it’s truly… American Made.