In American Made, Tom Cruise plays a highly fictionalized version of Barry Seal, a U.S. airline pilot who become notorious for his involvement in the South American drug trade in the 1970s and early '80s. According to most accounts, Seal was a pivotal figure in helping to establish cocaine smuggling operations into the United States and figured prominently in the rise of the brutal Medelln Cartel headed by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), Carlos Ledher (Fredy Yate Escobar), and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Meja). Screenwriter Gary Spinelli and director Doug Liman play fast and loose with the facts, turning Seal's stranger-than-fiction life into a rip-roaring adventure-comedy that leans heavily on Cruise's familiar screen charisma (which is on display more here than it has been in years) and treads lightly when dealing with the violence his character's exploits helped propagate. There are a few nods toward the inherent dangers of working for a Colombian drug cartel, but for most of the film it's nothing that Cruise can't smile, charm, or con his way out of.
When we first meet Seal, he is working as an airline pilot for TWA. His job is steady and dull and reliable, and his secret itch to escape to something more dangerous is suggested early on when he turns off the autopilot and engages in a little dangerous flying just to mess with the sleeping passengers on his redeye. When he is approached by CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who proposes that he ditch his staid life and work for them by flying reconnaissance missions over South America to take photographs of drug cartel activity, he jumps at the chance. Of course, he has to keep everything completely secret, even from his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), who begrudgingly goes along with what she thinks is his plan to start his own private charter company. Of course, the CIA is only a few shades less corrupt than the cartels they're trying to bust, and Seal is soon bringing home suitcases of cash. Those suitcases become larger and more frequent once he is approached by Jorge Ochoa about moonlighting for the cartel, which soon becomes a regular gig while he is still working for the CIA. His activities eventually become a thread woven into a much larger international tapestry of government-criminal collusion, namely the events that would eventually become known as the Iran-Contra Affair.
It's all gloriously absurd, and Liman plays up the nostalgic appeals of the time period with a thumping soundtrack of top-40 hits, visual nods to the media of the time (the opening credits unspool like a worn VHS tape), and a fast-and-furious approach to narration that recalls GoodFellas-era Scorsese. Liman, of course, is no Scorsese, and what he can't pull off in American Made is the alchemic balance that Scorsese achieves in his best films between the allure and the horrors of violence, the paper-thin line between charming and vicious in sociopathic criminals, and the intractable draw of the criminal life. Liman is working in a much lighter vein, and he largely steers clear of the inherent violence of his protagonist's line of work lest real bloodshed stain the rollicking good times. There is a car explosion that takes one character's life, a police raid on Seal's employers that lands him in a Colombian jail, and an off-screen assassination to remind us that killing and mayhem go hand-in-hand with drugs, but it's all carefully modulated to not be disturbing or distracting. Whenever Seal finds himself in some kind of genuine danger, such as when he has to crash-land his plane in a suburban neighborhood, there's almost always a punchline to make it go down easy (in this case, it's him riding off on a kid's bicycle with his panicked face covered in cocaine).
There is something slightly queasy about American Made's cheerful whitewashing of its subject matter, but that's nothing new or unique and is, in fact, a constitute charm of Hollywood's typical take on history (maybe that's what the title is actually referring to). Liman's direction is spot-on in this regard, and he makes fantastic use of Cruise, who we last saw being terribly misused this past summer in the misguided "Dark Universe" non-starter The Mummy (2017). He gets to toy with his trademark cockiness in ways that are consistently amusing-he charms his way out of multiple situations but also gets in way over his head, which means he gets to have his cake and eat it, too-and we're quickly reminded of why his star persona has proved so indelible for so long.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (2.5)
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