Tom Cruise doesn’t exactly play a bad guy in American Made – he’s just a very naughty boy.
For this jaunty, flashy drug smuggling caper, Cruise re-teams with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman to play Barry Seal, a real-life character who ran drugs, guns and money between central America and Arkansas in the late 1970s and early 80s, while also allegedly working for the CIA.
Seal, a family man who started out as a pilot for TWA, eventually became embroiled in what blew up into the Iran-Contra scandal as well as being a trusted delivery boy for the Medellin cocaine cartel lead by Pablo Escobar. He also had millions of dollars in cash stashed all over his house.
Cruise slips into the role with a mischievous grin and a flash of the trademark teeth. Add some Aviator shades and a couple of light aircraft, and it’s clear he’s chipping away at his hero image, even daring to riff on some classic old roles – Barry is a great pilot but a slippery customer, more son of a gun than Top Gun.
Barry initially stumbles into the part at the suggestion of a shadowy operative called Schaeffer (Domhnall Gleeson) who says he’s working for the CIA, but like a good American opportunist, Barry learns to “game” the system, using his CIA-sanctioned cover to become “the gringo who delivers” for Escobar and his henchmen. He comes home with suitcases stuffed so full of the green stuff that it spills out of the wardrobes, shoeboxes and barn (who has a barn?).
As director, Liman (whose father actually investigated the Iran-Contra affair) has covered the shaky moral ground of Langley in his Bourne Identity franchises and he’s at it again here, while also trying to cram in – and explain away – some real political history. The film features three US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, as Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, as well as figures such as Oliver North and General Noriega. Even Nancy Reagan pops up to tell us again: Just Say No.
Liman is to be commended on avoiding a 1980s nostalgia fest (there is a Rubik’s Cube and couple of power ballads but, hey, everyone needs context), using the cold war politics of the time rather than any awkward fashions or pop – I wonder, though, if he was tempted to show someone watching an early Brat Pack movie on a VHS?
The problem is that Cruise, even when trying to cut loose, is always so tightly control, so we never truly feel the reptilian survivalism of Barry Seal, nor does it feel like anyone on screen is actually enjoying themselves despite the repeated tequila parties and mountains of cash.
Earlyish in the picture, when Barry finds himself in a Colombian jail following a police raid, there’s a bit of business around him having a tooth knocked out, a clear indication that Cruise knows he’s denting his trademark toothsomeness here. Interestingly, the movie never suggests Seal (or any of his pilot cohorts) got high on their own supply – he may want to play with his image, but don’t think for a minute you’ll catch Tom Cruise snorting cocaine.
In several nods to Goodfellas, Cruise narrates the movie himself, although his to-camera testimonies are designed, we learn later, to incriminate his various employers.
With Cruise and Liman gently playing with the star’s iconography, the film breezes along achieving neither real comedy nor actual tension. Even while pointing fingers at the American government’s meddling foreign policy and lies, there’s a lightweight feel to it, and the political absurdity goes missing.
Strangely, for a Cruise vehicle, American Made takes a while to get going; and having never quite started, it doesn’t really know when to finish. There’s a terrific climax involving the CIA, DEA, FBI and a bunch of other acronymical forces – except it isn’t the climax, and the movie drags on for quite a while after, forgetting that we really don’t care much for the underwritten storyline of Barry’s family and his wife Lucy, gamely and prettily played by Sarah Wright Olsen in that increasingly thankless position of “girl in Tom Cruise movie”.
American Made isn’t exactly an American Flop, but it is too self-conscious, too stiff to be as fun as it wants to be. It’s professional, slick and not terrible, as you’d expect from, well, slick professionals such as Liman and Cruise, but never scratches beneath any of the surfaces. It looks vibrant and verdant (shot by Uruguayan cameraman Cesar Chalone, who did City of God) but it’s too eager to be cool and insouciant, which Cruise just isn’t.
He may still be the movie star who, like Barry Seal, “always delivers” – it’s just beginning to look a bit of an effort.