AMERICAN MADE ½
2017, R, 115 mins.
Tom Cruise as Barry Seal / Domhnall Gleeson as Monty 'Schafer' / Sarah Wright as Lucy Seal / Jesse Plemons as Sheriff Downing / Caleb Landry Jones as JB / Lola Kirke as Judy Downing / Jayma Mays as Dana Sibota
Directed by Doug Liman / Written by Gary Spinelli
AMERICAN MADE is proof positive that Tom Cruise - at a relatively ripe, but alarmingly young looking 55-years-old - is still a bona fide movie star that can carry just about any movie he inhabits.
Echoes of one of his most
famous and popular films in TOP GUN are inevitable all throughout this
biographical crime film in the sense that he once again plays the role of
a cocky pilot.
Yet, this go around the actor plays a character that's refreshingly
against the quintessential Cruise-ian type.
Throughout his long career he has embodied a multitude of
impulsive, headstrong and likeable alpha males that seemed one step ahead
of everyone else.
In AMERICAN MADE he inhabits another arrogant persona, but one that's
not particularly bright minded or even worthy of our hero worship.
The film is loosely based on
the real life story of Barry Seal, a former TWA airline pilot that
stumbled into becoming a drug smuggler for the Medellin Cartel in the late
1970s and early 1980s...all while working secretly with the CIA to run
reconnaissance missions over Central America that eventually led to him
delivering arms to General Noreiga in Panama to fight the Contras.
If none of this actually happened then AMERICAN MADE would have be
a very difficult film to take seriously, but the subtle genius of director
Doug Liman's approach here is that it has a loose and free wheeling
aesthetic that perfectly compliments the crazy and duplicitous life that
Seal led. Liman
and Cruise have worked together before on one of the most criminally
underrated films of the star's career in THE
EDGE OF TOMORROW and once again in AMERICAN MADE it seems like
another exceptionally well oiled creative marriage that makes its hard to swallow narrative go down all the more easily.
The film begins in late
1978 and shows Seal (Cruise) leading a relatively dull and monotonous life
as a TWA pilot...that is until CIA agent "Schafer" (Domhnall
Gleeson) offers him an opportunity to do aerial photography of Central
Wanting an adventurous change in his mundane
existence, Seal jumps at the chance, even though it requires him to lie to
his trophy wife back home, Lucy (Sarah Wright).
After a series of very successful surveillance missions, Seal
graduates up to ground ops that sees him delivering packages Noreiga...and
it's during this time that he's approached by two drug runners - Jorge
Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) - that would
like to use his talents to smuggle cocaine into the U.S. as his flies back
and forth for the CIA.
The CIA does find out about
Seal's extracurricular activities, but turns a relative blind eye to them
and opts to add more responsibilities on
his plate in terms of running guns to the Contras, but things get
complicated when it appears that the Contras would much rather get high
off cocaine that use CIA supplied guns to fight a secret war for the U.S..
This all leads to Seal embarking on a ridiculously convoluted
scheme to secretly give weapons to the drug lords instead of the Contras,
which ultimately makes him and his family more money than they even know
how to launder.
Even after Seal uproots his family to the remote and quiet town of
Mena, Arkansas to essentially lay low, Schafer embarks on his own wild
plan to bring in Central American soldiers to be trained and headquartered
Seal begins to realize that how laughably in over his head he has
become, which places his life in danger from just about everyone he's
Cruise is, obviously, the
focal point of attention in AMERICAN MADE, and only an actor of his innate
on screen charm would be capable of making a low life criminal scumbag
like Seal such an engaging creation that perversely demands our rooting
Seal is not presented as a saint or a hero in the slightest
throughout the film, and his loyalties change erratically through the
course of the story based on the needs of self preservation. Yet, somehow
and someway Cruise manages to infuse this morally bankrupt crook with a
southern charm and easy going spunk that's hard to truly hate.
Much of the macabre comedy that arises from Seal's predicaments
throughout the story is watching him stumble into one dangerous
altercation after another after being constantly outmatched and outwitted
by just about everyone along the way.
Cruise's ethereal swagger and million dollar smile ultimately
wins us over to the point of allowing an odd level of sympathy arise for
this poor sap's fate.
Liman's stylistic trappings
here don't have the slick sheen and polish of his previous films, which is
kind of welcoming.
Pitch perfectly recreating the 70s and 80s without needlessly
drawing attention to their more garish elements (a very tricky dichotomy
for any film to pull off), Liman's overall visual approach here is
chaotic, but somehow fluid and cohesive.
We're constantly reminded throughout that, yes, we're in a film set
35 years ago via period decor, pop and rock tunes, and news footage, but
Liman still gives the film a grizzled texture that makes
it feel like a madcap documentary at times.
The opening half of AMERICAN MADE is arguably its best and most
hypnotic as we bare witness to the once bored out of his wits working man
in Seal transforming himself into a CIA operative, spy photographer, and drug
and gun runner for multiple parties surviving on equal parts adrenaline
and fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants negotiating skills.
Seeing the increasingly frazzled Seal broker deals with all the
major players involved gives AMERICAN MADE an irresistibly compelling edge
Despite the film's darkly
comic intrigue and Cruise's incomparably winning presence, AMERICAN MADE
also has some deeply fascinating things to say about the sheer
contradictory absurdity of the U.S. Intelligence operations on foreign
soil, especially for how America teamed up with some highly questionable
allies in their ongoing war to stamp out communism during the Regan Cold
War era (being in bed with dictators, guerrilla fighters, and drug
peddlers doesn't speak highly of them in this regard).
The seedier undercurrent of AMERICAN MADE is that - via using Seal as a puppet - the CIA and government as a whole embarked on
missions that would unavoidably lead to the Iran/Contra Sscandal that
nearly destroyed Regan's presidency.
As a bizarre reality based saga of corruption, AMERICAN MADE is
simultaneously a footloose and fancy free action comedy, a drug
trafficking thriller, and a damning indictment of American foreign policy
run horribly afoul.
The fact that Liman and company somehow make it all work is to
their esteemed credit.
It could be easily argued,
though, that we've all seen this kind of film before (that of a simple and
unassuming blue collar man being thrust into a larger world of criminal,
financial, and political corruption that allows him to amass untold riches
and enemies has definitive echoes of BLOW, while other cursory elements of
showing Seal's implosion and fall from grace while engaging in self
destructive behavior reminds one of similar story arcs in GOODFELLAS,
AMERICAN HUSTLE, and THE
WOLF OF WALL STREET.
Then there is the manner that AMERICAN MADE meanderingly tackles
some lazily scripted subplots involving Seal's beleaguered, but
steadfastly loyal and committed wife (thanklessly played in an
underwritten role by Wright) and with her own red necked and troublemaking
brother (Caleb Landry Jones).
Yet, AMERICAN MADE maintains such an unstoppably vivacious energy
throughout that it almost becomes hard to sit back and nitpick.
And at the heart of it all is the infectiously agreeable renegade presence of Cruise
that helps cement this film as an implausibly entertaining spectacle of
greed and hubris gone afoul.
And with this coming off of the mournfully tedious and uninspiring THE MUMMY from earlier this summer, all is forgiven, Mr. Cruise.