MOVIE REVIEW: American Made
AMERICAN MADE-- 4 STARS
You know the drill of the typical “only in America” and “so unbelievable it has to be true” cinematic crime biography of a roguish anti-hero. The self-narrated humble beginnings give way to the zeal of daring accomplishment leading to wealthy illegal success, a rise to power, a peak of over-inflation, and the long arm of the law catching up to cause a fall from grace and comeuppance. From Scarface to War Dogs and everything in between, you’ve seen this kind of film before. However, the propeller that makes this jet-set ride swoop with showmanship is the dashing presence of Tom Cruise.
The 55-year-old megastar plays Barry Seal, a Louisiana-born commercial TWA pilot that was recruited in 1978 to use his piloting skills and moral flexibility to work for the CIA. The hush-hush spooks are engaged in a clandestine Cold War in Central America. Barry’s mysterious handler, Schafer (the everywhere-in-2017 Domhnall Gleeson), sets him up as a courier to General Manuel Noriega in Panama and a reconnaissance photographer. His crafty and evasive flying leads him to a drug-running offer he can’t refuse from the Medellin drug led by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda from Fear the Walking Dead) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Meija, in his third El Chapo casting).
Before long and moving with the changing political tides of the Reagan administration, Schafer has Seal running guns and trainees for the freedom-fighting Contras in Nicaragua. The CIA turns a blind eye to Seal’s drug-running for his impeccable operational success as “the Gringo that always delivers.” Business booms and the money stacks up by the suitcase-full in laundered, vaulted, and even buried bags throughout Barry’s relocation and expanded operations in Mena, Arkansas. The untouchable Barry and his hot-to-trot wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) live high on the hog before it all inevitably comes crashing down.
American Made is southern-fried Scorsese Lite, a gumbo of decadent deviance masking over a sharp spice of potentially fatal risks. Sophomore feature screenwriter Gary Spinelli combed over the wild Barry Seal story and crafted a narrative that is both loosey-goosey with groovy comedy and still honest with its depravity and threat levels. Tweaking the Scorsese template, director Doug Liman (Mr. and Mrs. Smith and The Bourne Identity) brings his kinetic energy to make things bouncy and bright, shooting much of the Central American settings right in Medellin, Columbia with Oscar-nominated City of God cinematography Cesar Charlone. Colors and contours pop all over this sunny, sweat-soaked affair.
As advertised, what keeps this film from wishy-washy repetitiveness is the committed charisma of Tom Cruise. True to Tom’s voracious sense of adventure, that’s often really him on the stick, earning on-screen credit as a stunt pilot for American Made, creating a strong sense of POV authenticity in Robert Alonzo’s stunt coordination of the many breathless flight sequences. This is Cruise’s second collaboration with Liman after Edge of Tomorrow and both roles have toned down the typically indestructible action hero into a fallible man of consequence. Cruise plays Seal with a relaxed range of agape befuddlement and southern charm. The star’s wide smile still wins in a flashy film far better 2010’s Knight and Day, his last non-franchise attempt in this genre.
LESSON #1: BEING GOOD AT YOUR JOB-- Want to get more perks, more opportunities, and probably more money? Do your job really well. The riskier, more specialized, and more important your job is, the more indispensable and profitable your job will be. As they always say, “just don’t get caught.”
LESSON #2: LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP-- A flipped mantra of excuse for Barry is when he says he leaped before he looked at whatever he was getting himself into. As fun as these swimming-in-money situations are, the risks almost always outweigh the rewards, especially when the cash-earning choices are illegal in nature. Ask a few more questions. Weigh a few more consequences before signing your life away.