Breaking Bad. Narcos. Bloodline. Ozark. In recent years the small screen has hosted numerous series set in the world of the drugs trade. Aside from last year’s little seen Bryan Cranston vehicle The Infiltrator, the trend has eluded the big screen. But now we have American Made, a true life tale of the extraordinary exploits of a drug-runner at the height of Reagan’s war on drugs, and starring the planet’s most recognizable movie star.
Tom Cruise is Barry Seal, a TWA pilot whom we first meet in the late ‘70s earning money on the side importing Cuban cigars to the US. When the CIA, in the form of weaselly agent Monty Schafer (a uniquely creepy Domhnall Gleeson), scupper his exploits, Seal is offered a way to avoid jail time - join the CIA as a pilot. Soon, Seal is making a more lucrative living flying over Latin American war zones and taking not so covert photos for his employers.
On one of his trips South of the border, Seal is approached by Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda), the head of Colombia’s most notorious drug cartel. It doesn’t take much to coerce Seal into agreeing to carry large quantities of cocaine aboard his plane, and soon the pilot is making more money than he ever imagined.
Seal never gets high on his own supply (unlike his young brother in-law, played by a never more typecast Caleb Landry-Jones), but instead becomes addicted to the rush. To quote Stephen Stills’ ode to drug-smuggling pilots, Treetop Flyer, Seal “don’t do business that don’t make him smile.” It gets to the point where Seal amasses literally more money than he can handle, with a local bank devoting an entire vault to his endless stream of cash, and banknotes floating like confetti in his back garden. It all seems too much like work if you ask me.
Liman avoids the sub-Scorsese stylings we’ve become accustomed to from true-life crime dramas, and instead delivers his own unshowy yet energetic take on this story. He’s one of the best filmmakers working in mainstream Hollywood today, but he rarely gets his due because he makes it all look so easy. His filmmaking is never visible, but always effective; he’s the very definition of a steady hand. 1980s period detail is kept to a minimum here, which helps add an air of immediacy to the story, and the needle drops are refreshingly restrained.
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Reteaming with Cruise after their acclaimed sci-fi flop Edge of Tomorrow, Liman seems to have found his ideal collaborator. After seeing American Made, it’s difficult to imagine another actor in the role of Barry Seal. Cruise’s shit-eating grin and boundless enthusiasm are vital in helping us believe this man could get away with so much wrongdoing, thanks to his not-so-innocent charm. It’s a chance to exercise both his dramatic and comic chops, and Cruise seizes it with the amount of enthusiasm you would expect from this workaholic. With the star lately stuck in duds like The Mummy and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, American Made comes at an opportune moment for Cruise, reaffirming him as one of Hollywood’s greatest assets. It’s good to see him in a cockpit again too!
3 1/2 stars out of 5
Directed by: Doug Liman; Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Alejandro Edda, Sarah Wright, Caleb Landry Jones, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke
originally published: 2017-09-25 09:20:40
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