By Jack Dignan
Americans, for the most part, are pretty proud to be American. And that’s fair enough. It’s all part of one’s patriotism and nationalistic pride. Through their undying love for their country, cinema has become a tool for their stories to reach global audiences. Over the years, we’ve gotten so many tales of American heroism, debauchery, perversion and more. We’ve had Psycho’s, Sniper’s, Beauty’s, Hustle’s, Pie’s and countless others. One may even consider it to be a new American Cinematic Universe, since everything is getting one nowadays. So, adding to the ever-increasing list of titles starting with ‘American’ is American Made, a movie in which Tom Cruise works for Pablo Escobar, the CIA, the DEA, the White House and an airport all at the same time.
As the saying goes, the truth is often stranger than fiction. There are some stories you simply can’t make up. I disagree with that second part, but when it comes to American Made, it does its best to force you into agreeing. This is a true story. Apparently. And it’s even wilder, unpredictable and ridiculous than any fictitious attempt at telling a similar story (even with the supposed inaccuracy here and there). It’s the 1980s. The cold war is still going on. The CIA need a pilot to fly overseas and take incognito, highly classified photographs of enemy basecamps. So, they hire Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), a former airline pilot with a tendency to smuggle illegal cigarettes as a side job. If he works for them he’ll finally earn enough money to live a stable life with his family. For him, it’s perfect. So of course he takes it.
Except, Barry Seal’s life takes an unexpected turn when his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) becomes pregnant. While taking in a sturdy paycheck every week, it simply is not enough, and because his boss (Domhnall Gleeson) refuses to give him a raise, he turns to other methods of making money. He starts drug smuggling. And by working for infamous drug lords, including Pablo Escobar, Barry’s not only creating financial stability for his family, but also rising up the ranks within the criminal underworld. It’s a tale of greed, excess and knowing when to play the right card. Sound familiar? Yes. Yes it does. It’s a film clearly made in a post-Wolf of Wall Street era, where tales of greed and money are released weekly and at this point, they’re starting to become indistinguishable.
However, American Made, while familiar, does contain just enough to break things away from the norm. The execution of its story has been structurally and thematically covered several times over. It’s the American dream gone wrong, now with Tom Cruise at the forefront in replace of Leonardo DiCaprio or any other handsome, middle aged leading men used to deliver a message you’ve already heard before. But what director Doug Liman, fresh off of this month’s newly released The Wall, is able to do with the story puts it back in the spotlight and creates a new take on a familiar structure. He doesn’t tick off all the boxes. He just switches a few of them over.
There’s moral corruption, chaos and back stabbing everywhere, but the character of Barry Seal undergoes some necessary changes in comparison to similar anti-heroes. He’s not doing the right thing, and even in his situation, he’s doing everybody wrong, but this isn’t a man who’s entirely twisted and corrupt. There’s no tragic home life story or martial problems or anything of the sort. Through all his wrong doings and rise to fame, Barry Seal’s just trying to make a living for his family. Within that process, he’s playing everybody, but there’s enough empathy and self-recognition birthed from his fun-loving, daring, get-shit-down personality to make for an interesting protagonist, and Cruise kills it.
In every one of his films, you can tell he’s having fun. This is a man who enjoys his craft, and American Made is no exception. While it sees him venturing astray from his typical action hero routes, he’s able to deliver a different side to his stereotyped persona and create a rambunctious, over the top character that’s evidently a whole lot of fun to perform. You won’t find any undead mummies here, and thankfully so. American Made is an actual movie, unlike the aforementioned horror-action –universe set up slop that was his last film (I didn’t actually hate it). He plays Barry Seal as a ‘what if’ scenario in the world of Top Gun. What if Maverick was a gun smuggler and drug trafficker? But, to the audience’s benefit, he pulls it off, and watching him is almost as much fun as he’s having.
A gorgeous colour grade is etched over every scene. It’s visceral and lavish, and creates a much more luscious environment than the film’s camera work deserves. The camera just can’t stay still, zooming and panning and bouncing around the scenes to create an urban, guerilla styled vibe, but it doesn’t work. It’s poorly framed and, frequently, very ugly. The film itself doesn’t feel cheap, even if the odd plane sequence here and there does, but the camera work feels juvenile and fresh out of film school, creating a visual style that’s jarring and deplete. It’s often reminiscent of a low budget TV show. You can never fully be engrossed in the goings on because the movie’s design takes you out of it. Tom Cruise goes for it, but the visual style fails to keep up.
There’s plenty of familiarity all throughout American Made, but its big, bold, black, self-indulgent story lends many favours and allows for an entertaining, pleasant surprise of a movie. Everyone involved is having the time of their lives, even the very miscast Domhnall Gleeson. It is, much like the jobs Barry Seal undertakes, a non-stop, ramped up ride that leaves you exhausted and satisfied, even without a desire to go back and revisit it.
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