A film review by Craig J. Koban October 13, 2017

AMERICAN MADE jjj

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 America.  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 there.  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 scamming.   

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 interest.  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 early on. 

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.  

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