MOVIE REVIEW – Welcome to the eighties with Tom Cruise in the role of smuggler working for both the Columbian cartel and the CIA in the based-on-a-true-story caper American Made. With narration over freeze frames, ironic news footage and the familiar elements of a political docudrama, Doug Liman’s movie offers few surprises, but it remains an entertaining, well-made movie.
Actor Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman tell Barry Seal’s story with an undeniable energy and panache. While the story is nothing short of unbelievable – the kind you’d dismiss as too far-fetched if it didn’t come with that ‘based on true events’ tag – it still makes sense in this Cold War era with dirty CIA operations and drug traffic. Sure, Tom Cruise (still looking fit and handsome at his 55) looks nothing like the original – very fat – Barry Seal, neither the movie is a deep political thriller like those of Oliver Stone (JFK), but it’s an entertaining crime drama and comedy.
“Based on true story.”
American Made “cruises” through its true tale; yet knowing just how light and comedic to play this larger-than-life crime scenario isn’t a true power of either Liman or screenwriter Gary Spinelli. Still, the film’s loose period vibe proves to divert and mostly engaging, as well as to drive its sunny-hued visual style. Cruise may be the feature’s box office lure — and this time around he should attract more than his loyal fans — but, in contrast to the grim, bland The Mummy, he’s also wrapped up in its shiny packaging.
In the movie’s retelling, Seal jumps from transporting illegal cigars on his TWA jaunts to setting up a government-funded front for a spate of secret aerial surveillance missions without much need to be convinced, and hardly bats an eyelid when they tell him to transport weapons to Nicaragua.
That’s where the cartel comes in; taking the weapons and getting Seal into narcotics trafficking, with an abundance of cash proving quite the incentive. He might be lying to his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) about his job, and to his CIA handler Monty Shafer (Domhnall Gleeson) about his extracurricular activities, but he’s otherwise soaring up — until the cartel’s confrontation with local authorities brings the heat back home in America.
Top Gun 2? Hardly…
Barry Seal is an easy role for Cruise, fully flashing his charismatic grin but also reaffirming his character-actor jaws after many big-budget outings where he predominantly played copies on his action-man persona.
When we first meet Barry Seal in the late ’70s, he’s working as a commercial airline pilot, where he earns a few extra bucks on the side by smuggling Cuban cigars in the USA. His illegal activities attract the attention of the CIA’s man Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who recruits Seal and his flying skills to take covert photos of South American insurgents.
While there’s much pleasure to be had in Cruise’s bragging charm in the early scenes, it’s truly a performance of more than just his usual routine. He nails Seal’s nervy, out-of-his-depth unease while maintaining a wide-eyed likeability that keeps you rooting for him (and just about believing that his forgiving trophy wife would put up with his tricks).
It also feels like ages ago that Cruise has had the chance to be properly funny. In one of the major scenes, we can see him dusted head-to-toe in cocaine while pedaling like crazy on a child’s push bike, is not easily forgotten. Whether he’s bluffing his way through cartel meetings, making a dicey take-off that sees him barrelling through treetops, or documenting his story in video messages when things start to go sour, he’s strong in almost every frame of the film.
This movie is also tailor-made for Cruise; it so fits him perfectly. He and Seal, who quit his day job at TWA to get entangled with the CIA, would have been bosom buddies — by all accounts, Seal was fuelled by adrenaline, forever in search of a bigger hit and bigger stakes, and Doug Liman’s trip through his wildest years fully exploits Cruise’s fetishes.