American Made (2017)

The sky is never the limit.

Those who thought that Tom Cruise’s mojo might be flailing need look no further as American Made proves that he’s still got it! After seeing his bankable name somewhat tarnished (earlier this year) in Universal’s The Mummy, which was supposed to kick-start their entire Dark Universe slate, American Made feels like the perfect vehicle for Cruise to bounce back, the movie re-capturing that flying-ace persona that made him such a megastar after 1986’s Top Gun — heck, it’s hard to believe the guy’s nearly 60!

Re-teaming with his Edge of Tomorrow (2014) director Doug Liman, American Made is a kinetic, so-crazy-it-must-be-true story, one that spans over eight years and sees the cool, flamboyant Cruise play a fictionalized version of Barry Seal, a gifted Trans World Airlines (TWA) pilot turned-drug smuggler who was handpicked by the CIA to help counter the emerging communist threat in Central America during the Regan era — if something illegal needed to be done overnight, Barry Seal was your man. Running bags of cocaine and boxes of AK-47s for both the CIA and local drug cartels, the zealot-like Seal wound up becoming insanely wealthy as a major player in the Iran-Contra affair, crossing paths with people such as Pablo Escobar and Oliver North along the way.

‘I’d expect you to do the impossible …’

Opening with a bombardment of archival footage (including a retro Universal logo), we’re zapped back to 1978 where we meet Barry Seal, a cocky throttle jockey from Baton Rouge who’s bored with his life, which seems to be stuck on autopilot; Barry keeps himself amused by initiating in-flight turbulence and trafficking Cuban cigars from Canada and Mexico. This little ‘side venture’ eventually attracts the attention of CIA operative Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who sees Seal as his big ticket to a promotion. You see, Schafer coerces Seal into flying fast and low for him, taking hard-to-get surveillance shots of communist activities happening in and around Central America. While on his rounds, Seal is hijacked by Colombian drug trafficker Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and his unstable companion Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía), who make Seal an offer he can’t refuse. Before long, Seal is collecting bales of cocaine from Colombia and flying them over to the States, dropping them into farms in Mena, Arkansas, via parachute-equipped duffel bags. In time, business starts boomin,’ with Seal living a pretty lucrative lifestyle.

That’s until he’s arrested by the DEA in the early ’80s and thrown into a dodgy Colombian prison, where he’s found with a missing molar. As our anti-hero plainly states in one of his videotaped confessions, which Liman uses as a framing device: shit gets really crazy from here. To avoid serving time and being prosecuted by the DEA, Schafer sets Barry up with a new house in backwater Arkansas, complete with a private airport and a shiny new twin-propeller plane, where he’s tasked with delivering guns to right-wing Contra rebels in Nicaragua whom are being aided by the Regan government in their fight against the Sandinistas. Soon, Seal finds himself in over his head, the all-American cowboy dealing with both sides of the law, knowing very well that if either party were to find out about the other, he’d be in the shit! Working for the all-powerful Medellín Cartel whilst helping the government fund a guerrilla war — the CIA eventually establishing a training camp for the Contras on his enormous property — the egocentric ‘gringo’ winds up amassing a fortune large enough to rival that of even Michael Corleone.

Join the Mile High Club

Written by Gary Spinelli, Stash House (2012), who uses hard-boiled facts as well as real-life home videos that Seal recorded — including several ‘how-to’ tapes — for his script, American Made is a brisk, entertaining docudrama, even if it feels a smidgen derivative, particularly in the wake of flicks such as American Hustle (2013) and last year’s War Dogs — viewers who are familiar with the aforementioned will surely know where this one’s headed. Keeping things in a linear fashion, American Made zips along at a brisk, engaging pace, the narrative remaining very easy to follow, which, given the complexity of what’s presented, is a testament to the talented folks involved in bringing Barry’s escapades to the big screen.

It’s evident that filmmaker Doug Liman knows how to work with big A-listers, look at what he did with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), and Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity (2002). Here he, once again, directs our charismatic star with a confident hand, Cruise bringing Seal to life with a devilish kinda swagger, the 55-year-old doing a bulk of his own flying and stunt work — it helps that director Liman is a pilot, too — our leading man commanding the screen with his slick aviators and cheeky grin, almost as if playing an older version of his Top Gun Navy pilot character, Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell. Dodging death, jail-time and his own personal snags, Cruise babbles, sweats and panics his way through the flick’s sharp 115-minute runtime, the short-statured star delivering one of his best performances to date.

Just Cruisin’

Slickly edited by Andrew Mondshein, The Sixth Sense (1999), Saar Klein, Almost Famous (2000), and Dylan Tichenor, Zero Dark Thirty (2012), American Made is fast and frantic, the action well-choreographed and cut. Whether Seal is taking off from tiny untested Colombian runways or crash landing his craft (in a suburban neighborhood) to dodge Customs officials — Barry stumbling out of his plane covered in cocaine — the major set pieces are all edge-of-your-seat exciting and really fun to watch. Embracing its ’70s and ’80s retro aesthetic, American Made also looks great, the warm-yellow frames and free roaming cinematography by César Charlone, City of God (2002), adding to the old-fashioned flavor. Moreover, there’s a stack of flashy era-specific montages, the highlight set to Walter Murphy’s ‘A Fifth of Beethoven,’ the picture further enhanced by an impressive score by composer Christophe Beck, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), which is definitely one of the year’s finest.

Although American Made is no doubt Cruise’s film, his wonderful co-stars certainly help ‘seal’ the deal. Sarah Wright Olsen, Walk of Shame (2014), is ace as Barry’s über-supportive wife Lucy, a strong-willed blonde who looks out for her family, no matter the cost. There’s a great sequence where Barry forces his clan to move from Louisiana to Arkansas in the middle of the night, the Southern-born actress nailing a scene where she’s abandoned by her man, left standing frustrated and confused, alone in the middle of her empty new abode. Similarly, Domhnall Gleeson, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), is terrific as Barry’s CIA handler and the flick’s sorta antagonist Monty Schafer, an unscrupulous cubical worker trying to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. Jayma Mays, Red Eye (2005), makes the most of her role as Dana Sibota, a tough attorney who’s out to lock Barry up for life, while Caleb Landry Jones, Get Out (2017), does his usual redneck thing as Lucy’s mulleted younger brother, a tragic hick whose sloppiness threatens to shatter Barry’s entire criminal enterprise. Last but not least, we have Jesse Plemons, Black Mass (2015), and Lola Kirke, Gone Girl (2014), who portray the Polk County Sheriff Downing and his wife Jude, the couple continually shrugging off their suspicions about Barry.

‘You complete me’

Shining a light on the underside of the American Dream — à la Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) — as well as the murky geopolitics of its period, American Made marks another winner for leading man Cruise and director Liman, who tackle the exploits of Barry Seal (a man who stuck it to the system) with the right amount of comedy and drama. Let’s just pretend that Mummy debacle never happened, shall we.

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

American Made is released through Universal Pictures Australia