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Published August 22nd 2017
Tom Cruise is back and flying planes again, without goose
When did Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel become so in vogue? It seems as if the past 5 or so years have brought us dozens of films, miniseries, TV shows, books, and even a slew of t-shirts with that infamous mug shot emblazoned on the front. There are only so many ways to tell the story before it gets old, and it seems as though Hollywood has become aware of that, which has led to new ways to walk a slightly worn out path. Enter American Made.
Beginning in 1978 and jumping forward sporadically throughout the early 80's, American Made tells the true story of commercial airline pilot turned drug smuggler turned DEA informant Barry Seal. Played by noted religious enthusiast Tom Cruise, the movie chronicles the rise and fall of the hotshot pilot (sound familiar?), beginning with his recruitment into the CIA to provide aerial surveillance of the emerging communist threat in Central America. his handler (the always excellent Domhnall Gleeson) is quick to inform him that it is in his best interest to keep a low profile and tell no one of his involvement. However, his constant back and forth across their airspace quickly attracts the attention of the Medellin Cartel in Columbia, and Seal begins to bring back more than photographs to the United States soil upon his return flights (spoiler: it's cocaine).
There is a lot to love about American Made. First off, it is very clear this is a film made by very talented people. Every single shot of the movie is framed in an interesting manner and is rich in atmosphere. Using different filters for each country, the Colombian scenes (filmed in actual Colombia) carry a completely different feel than the scenes based in Louisiana. When Barry first meets the Cartel, you can visibly see the heat in the air, flickering in hazy waves throughout the shot. Likewise, Cruise's shirt begins to show the signs of his discomfort, patches of sweat becoming larger and larger in each passing frame.
American Made is a continuation of an interesting trend in Cruise's later career. Gone is perfect hero, the salt-of-the-earth character whose only flaws add to his charm that was a constant in the 80's and 90's. Here, Cruise plays Barry Seal as a man who likes to think of himself as a tough guy with trademark Louisiana charm, but is ultimately a snake in the grass, someone who isn't afraid to align himself with whomever will cut him the biggest cheque. While Seal would like to think the things he's doing are for his country, he is ultimately motivated by greed. Tom Cruise is no longer sticking to characters who are larger than life action hero archetypes and is now settling into roles that resemble actual human beings.
This is none more evident than in a standout scene in the middle of the movie, when the Medellin Cartel's palace is stormed by local police. The drug lords calmly tell Barry to wait in their office, laughing off the raid as a minor inconvenience, and gunshots are heard off camera. When Barry goes out to investigate, he is thrown on the ground and incapacitated by a Colombian police officer, his entire body trembling as he begins to protest and plead his case. A far cry from Mission Impossible.
At the end of the day, however, this is still a Tom Cruise vehicle and suffers from all the baggage that comes from that. This is all Cruise, all the time, and no other star shines quite as brightly as his. The supporting cast is a who's who of TV's finest actors, including Glee's Jayma Mays and The Shield's Benito Martinez. But no character is given enough screen time to establish themselves as anything but a plot device to keep the film moving along, ultimately feeling like a waste of talent.
A particular travesty is the casting of Jesse Plemons as the Sheriff of the small town that Barry and his family set up their new life in. This talented actor gets roughly 5 minutes of screen-time, and half of those are spent silently in the background of shots.
There is a scene where Barry is pressured into taking a dangerous assignment for the DEA later in the film. He looks over to the car where his wife and children are waiting for him, and he tells the agent with him that the stakes are higher than he can imagine. But the whole thing rings hollow, as we have had no time spent with this family to form any type of attachment to them as characters. Seal may as well be looking at an empty car.
It would help if the film would slow down a bit to create that attachment. But it has no time for that, jumping from scene to scene at such a frenetic pace you wonder if one of those smuggled bags of Colombian nose candy made it into the editing room. Director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) has clearly borrowed from The Wolf of Wall Street when making this film, with the frequent montages and rapid cut pacing that made that film so popular being lifted in what can be described as a homage at best, and a rip-off at worst.
American Made is a film with a lot of style but not a lot of substance. In the third act, there is a monologue by Barry regarding his journey and its parallels to the "American Dream" that is about as subtle as a brick to the face. It comes across as incredibly ham-fisted as this is a movie that cares way more about being cool than providing any sort of meaningful message. And it will forgo its own established universe to achieve that cool factor, evident when Cruise starts up his car and turns his radio onto a song by British band The Heavy. The song came out in 2012. Cruise and his car are supposed to be in 1986.
American Made is well shot, well acted, and a lot of fun, but ultimately not much is remembered of it when leaving the theatre. There are better rags to riches movies and there are better projects based on the same material. Plus Narcos Season 3 is out in a couple of weeks.