An exaggerated take on the Medellin Cartel scandal, Tom Cruise shows his comedic abilities in this ‘70s-based biographical crime comedy.
In an era of Hollywood where serious, dramatic biopics seem to be a trend, American Made is a breath of fresh air. Starring Tom Cruise, the film is a humorous, at times laugh-out-loud take on the Medellin Cartel, which became one of the dominating drug trafficking forces in the United States during the 1970s.
The film is the second collaboration between Cruise and director Doug Liman, who previously teamed up with 2014’s sleeper hit Edge of Tomorrow. Cruise is obviously in his element in an action vehicle, and Liman’s resume has so far been packed with straightforward action (his previous work includes Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Jumper).
Liman has gradually gotten better, and this may be his most muscular offering yet. He steps away from conventional action sequences and instead focuses on telling the infamous story — with a few inevitable exaggerations the big screen demands.
The film’s lightning pace highlights the power hungriness of Barry Seal, who was an American airline pilot before being tapped by the CIA to fly over enemy territory and snap reconnaissance photos (at least, in this version of events).
Domhnall Gleeson plays an unwavering agent who assigns Seal increasingly risky missions, with little regard of endangering Seal in the process. With this role under his belt, Gleeson puts a firm stamp on becoming one of Hollywood’s most versatile players. Perhaps he hasn’t become a household name yet because he blends into all of his roles so well (he’s been in mother!, Star Wars and Ex Machina in recent memory).
While in Panama, Seal’s path intersects with the Medellin Cartel, which offers to pay him $2,000 per every two pounds of cocaine he smuggles into America on his plane. Seeing dollar signs, Seal becomes both a spy and a drug smuggler in the same aircraft.
As one would expect, there’s turbulence along the way. At first, Seal tries to hide both of his identities from his wife, a blonde Southern girl who sees through him immediately. She’s played with great effect by Sarah Wright, who uses her real-life Kentucky charm to craft the movie’s heart and earn laughs along the way.
Gleeson and Wright play second fiddle to Cruise, though. Of course they do. He’s somehow 55 years old (does scientology make him eternally youthful?), which means he thrived in the ’70s, and it shows. He relishes in playing the shadier parts of his character, a man who can’t refuse money until he has so much he doesn’t know what to do with it. (He and his wife end up burying bags of money in the backyard because they run out of physical space to store it.)
Seal is a matchstick who ignites at the slightest of friction. He’s always one step away from disaster, and usually it’s someone else’s quick thinking that saves him. It’s his thinking that causes the chaos.
Liman is an excellent match for Cruise behind the camera. Paired with Gary Spinelli’s breakneck screenplay, the film is mostly a joyride with very little sag. Liman throws in real photographs and Cruise chronicling his adventure on film to present the film as if it were a mockumentary. Liman’s movies are never a second longer than they need to be; a film like American Made could easily get old if it lingered. Instead, it cracks like a whip.
Unfortunately, it may not linger with the viewer for long, either. It’s undeniable fun while being watched, but won’t have much lasting power in the box office or awards circuits this year. Lately, Cruise has proven to be anything but American made — The Mummy, a potential franchise launcher earlier this year, fizzled in the states while exploding across the rest of the globe.
That’s fine, though. This movie doesn’t need to be anything world-changing. For what it is, it’s great. ••