Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
Director: Doug Liman
Running Time: 115 mins
Synopsis: Based on the true story regarding pilot Barry Seal. Partaking in small fry smuggling he is recruited by a mysterious CIA agent (Gleeson) to graduate to the big leagues and facilitate in an attempted state sponsored coup in South America. However he soon finds himself smuggling for not only the CIA but the Medellin cartel as well. Vast riches await but so does increased pressures on all sides, and a life that is constantly in jeopardy.
Unquestionably the biggest star in the world Tom Cruise has quite recently begun to show a little fatigue. Once an unpredictable performer, collaborating with unexpected directors such as Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, whilst delivering performances of engrossing complexity. Nowadays he appears stuck in a sea of action-fests and franchise non starters (Knight & Day and The Mummy anyone??), which while capably watchable, no one out there does action like the do it for real Cruise, has rendered him oddly bland. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow provided a light in all this, Cruise subverting his action hero credentials by playing a soldier of cowardice. He re-teams with Liman for American Made and finally returns to the charismatic multi-faceted performer he showcased early in his career.
Cruise plays real life individual Barry Seal. A successful pilot in the late 70s, who has a quiet sideline in smuggling illegal cigars across borders for a little extra dosh. Seal is a man who yearns for the thrill, restricted in the doldrum routine of domestic flying, whose only outlet is said smuggling and the occasional daring flying he covers over as fake turbulence. Cruise plays this dissatisfaction subtly, with an outward appearance of cool casualness and only his eyes giving shine to his true downheartedness. So it is no surprise when he leaps at the chance of joining the CIA after being approached by Domhnall Gleeson’s mysterious ‘Schafer’. Seal is asked to use a state of the art plane to take pictures of rebel strongholds in Central America. But a mission that takes on new aspects when he finds the Medellin cartel interested in his flying skills.
This point on Barry leaps from job to job, the stakes rising with each passing flight. Drug smuggling becomes gun smuggling, CIA and Cartel assistance becomes revolutionary preparedness (Seal has to transport rebels from Nicaragua to the US as part of Reagan’s planned coup in the region) before he gets in so deep that he finds it hard to balance so many demanding factions. You’d be forgiven if you feel this is all “been here done that” and yet Liman manages to give American Made a loose kinetic vibe that belies its cliches. Not to mention the fact it is true compensates for any familiarity, although as you can imagine some liberties have certainly been taken. Events hyped up for effect, as well as the quite pertinent fact that the real Seal was a heavy-set very un-Tom-Cruise-like individual. Liman doesn’t seem to care about such delicacies, driven as he is to make this as fun a ride as possible.
Barely able to sit still the film leaps forward with gleeful abandon. Liman utilising jump cuts, voiceover, cute animatics and even an old school VHS recording Seal makes which hones into clarity in the final moments. All of this is urged along by a whip smart Cruise performance. Managing to portray a man in love with the thrill of adventure but still breathlessly confounded at just what he has got himself into. That dazzling smile and manic energy endearing us to Seal even when he is wilfully flouting the law. Sight of a cocaine covered Cruise stealing a kids bike and whizzing down a suburban street is one of the finest Cruise moments in a career filled with memorable snapshots.
The performances around him are equally as strong, the lack of recognisable faces (outside of Gleeson) helps to give American Made a stronger tangibility. Sarah Wright manages to even give the token wife role a strength and playful humour, allowing us to root for them as a couple. Although Caleb Landry Jones once again turns in a scuzzy wiry performance as Wright’s brother, I’m unsure he even knows how to play anything else, throwing a spanner into Seal’s operation with his unpredictability. All of these characters, whilst boisterously entertaining, are kept at arms length by the scripts desire to keep things moving.
At no point do we truly delve into who Barry, or anyone else, really is. We get no sense of an internal battle, or an emotional deliverance to what are some quite frankly horrific events. Sure Cruise goes to some shaky exasperated places, particularly when forces begin to close in on him, but you never get to grips with him as a human being. The final moments robbed of a potent emotional kick. Likewise Liman almost gets close to some incisive commentary on American domestic policy, notably in the use of intelligence agencies to instil a coup in Nicaragua, but rarely gets any deeper, choosing to focus on the high-flying capers of his leading hero.
It is hard to call foul on any of this when American Made is just so much god damn fun. Liman and Cruise working hard to provide as many mouth aghast moments as possible, sequences that demand you challenge whether all this really happened or not (it did) and a helpful dose of little action beats to keep the threat ever present. I’m sure Cruise will no doubt return to the blockbuster oeuvre that protects him (Mi:6 lands next year) but American Made is a hugely winning reminder of why he became the world’s biggest star in the first place.
Verdict: Emotionally out of reach but a vibrant loose energy coupled with a never more charismatic Tom Cruise gives American Made a palpable sense of pure escapism in a tale that is truly hard to believe.