Skip to main content

‘Cos I’m the gringo who always delivers.

American Made
(2017)

(SPOILERS) This is definitely more the sort of thing Tom Cruise should be doing, a movie that relies both on his boyish™ charm and at least has pretensions of ever so slightly pushing the envelope of standard multiplex fare, rather than desperately attaching himself to an impersonal franchise (The Mummy) or flailingly attempting to kick start one (Jack Reacher: Never Go Back); remember when Cruise wouldn’t even go near sequels (for about 20 years, The Color of Money aside, and then only the one series)? American Made is still victim to the tendency of his movies to feel superstar-fitted rather than remaining as punchy as they might be on paper (Made’s never quite as satirically sharp as it wants to be), but it at least doesn’t lead its audience by the nose.


Cruise is lucky he has such a ready supply of moisturiser (he may well have been subjected to the kind of de-aging effects work that made Brad Pitt look ridiculously plasticky in Allied, but it doesn’t show here), since he’s nearly a decade older and a good eight stone lighter than Barry Seal was when he was offed by the cartels for playing both ends a little too studiously (although, it seems the buck stops with Ollie North). There’s no difficulty at all seeing him as a young-ish guy, still in his ‘30s, except that your brain knows full well he isn’t. As such, there’s something of a disconnect having him paired with yet another featureless female co-star (Sarah Wright, only two decades his junior). Although, to be fair, the problems there are more about a wafer-thin, entirely reactive part than Wright’s performance.


Seal has already been portrayed four times before, first by Dennis Hopper (1991 TV movie Doublecrossed; curiously, Hopper was about the same age Cruise is now), then in the last couple of years on TV (in Alias El Mexicano and Narcos) and most recently by Michael Paré in The Infiltrator (Paré even has a few years on Tom), and isn’t difficult to see how the appeal of the character lodged in Cruise’s mind in the current movie climate. A happy-go-lucky charmer and scoundrel, Seal forsook his career with TWA for a more colourful one, working for the CIA while smuggling drugs and arms, the former for the Medellin Cartel, the latter at the behest of his nominal paymasters to supply the Nicaraguan Contras (this after previously acting as a courier to General Noriega). Eventually, Seal ends up out on a limb as the CIA abandon him to the FBI, DEA and law enforcement generally (in an amusingly unlikely confluence of parties, they show up to apprehend him simultaneously), his only recourse being to work for the Reagan White House’s anti-drugs campaign by obtaining evidence that the Medellin Cartel is in cahoots with the Sandanistas (upon which, the White House “carelessly” releases the footage and Seal becomes a marked man).


At least, that’s Doug Liman’s and screenwriter Gary Spinelli’s version. You can find various other accounts of Seal, some suggesting he was actually working for the CIA from the mid-‘50s, including involvement in Cuba, Guatemala and Vietnam (Air America), with links to Clay Shaw and even the JFK assassination (piloting a getaway plane from Dallas). He was brought to trial in 1974 in connection with supplying explosives to anti-Castro Cubans (a mistrial ensued) and then began working for the CIA full time (while also working for the DEA, so their obliviousness to his antics in the movie wouldn’t quite have been that). Actual imprisonment followed (smuggling cocaine from Ecuador; he spent nine months in stir before being released without charge), and it was his incarceration there that led to his contact with the Medellin Cartel. When he was arrested in ’84 for Quaalude smuggling and money laundering, he was the one who contacted the White House and fed them what they wanted to hear (that the Cartel was in league with the Sandinistas). And when he was put on probation (Salvation Army community service), he was apparently of the view that he had little to worry about from the Colombians because he hadn’t implicated senior members; rather, the US Government and CIA contacts, including Bush Sr, had him nervous, with a trail leading back to North.


Reading that gnarly, almost Forrest Gump-like selection of events and encounters – most of which you won’t find in his Wikipedia entry –  you long for Oliver Stone in his prime to get hold of the story. It’s entirely understandable that Hollywood, and in particular a Cruise vehicle, would opt for a sanitised, knockabout version of Seal’s life in which he simply stumbles haplessly from smuggling a few Cuban cigars (although that may in itself be a nod by the screenwriter to his actual previous form) to juggling multiple employers. Is it any coincidence that you finish the movie as you started, not really know anything about Barry, other than he’s Tom Cruise? Having said that, though, that’s almost enough.


You can see Tom’s thinking. DiCaprio in Catch Me if You Can and Wolf made a hit of roguish real-life characters. Seal brings with him the cachet of the dark side of the American dream. Dark as in, it’s fully graspable just as long as you flout, disregard and generally neglect anything even approaching legal behaviour (Goodfellas). The difference is, Cruise doesn’t knuckle down the way DiCaprio does. There’s always glamour to his thinking (and hey, Seal’s a pilot; Tom gets to fly!) Still, that’s fine for the movie this is, a broad take emphasising a smooth operator. Fidelity to facts (or alleged incidents – you’re never really going to get to truth with any kind of certainty with this kind of story) comes second to the rhythm and pace of depicting the landing-on-his-feet luck of a guy who apparently can’t fail.


And there’s many a sequence here that fulfils that remit, from Seal taking off in a cocaine-overburdened plane from an impossibly small airstrip, to he and his team outwitting the DEA by flying by oilrigs (so they’re mistaken for helicopters) or just flying slow (the DEA jets are too fast and eventually need to refuel), to his eventual arrest and cocksure certainty that the charges will be dropped. Liman also encourages the unspooling insanity of events in Mena, Arkansas, with Barry unable to find anywhere to stash all his cash and plane loads of Contras flown in to be trained up (they’re mostly rather indifferent to the prospect).


The trouble might be that Liman, renowned for building his movies in the edit (with subsequent reshoots), doesn’t have the vicelike grip on material Scorsese does, and with a rambling, freewheeling narrative (as opposed to The Edge of Tomorrow’s clear, calculated one), he fails to charge up the picture. American Made is highly watchable, and breakneck in eventfulness, but it rarely manages to be invigorating with it, in the kind of controlled out-of-control manner you can see in the last hour of Goodfellas, for example. There’s little tension, and not really all that much resonance when Barry meets his end. Liman punctuates the narrative with Seal’s videotaped reminiscences, but they seem like an afterthought that fails to provides glue to the parts. The result is way superior to Air America, which had not dissimilar subject matter, but short of how incisive it might have been.


The picture exhibits an essential ‘70s decayed-orange hue courtesy of César Charlone’s cinematography (the faded period-style production company logos, including Universal’s from the period are a nice touch) and a soundtrack that hits all the right period signposts. The supporting cast are solid, including Domnhall Gleeson as Seal’s casually manipulative CIA contact and Caleb Landry Jones reaching new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at it) with his expanding roster of repulsive specimens as Barry’s brother-in-law. Jesse Plemons, as the Mena sheriff, seems to have mostly ended up on the cutting room floor somewhere along the line.


You can add American Made to the list of good-but-not-great Cruise movies of the last decade (Oblivion, the first Jack Reacher, Valkyrie, Knight and Day), and the same with Liman, who with few exceptions (The Edge of Tomorrow) fashions interesting but flawed mainstream movies (he’s a journeyman with merit points). I don’t really see American Made making a whole lot of money, and I don’t see its title helping any. Whoever bottled calling it Mena – you can see the conversations of concerned execs about how no one will know what it mean-a-s – was evidently oblivious to the fact that giving it the blandest, most homogenous title going (and it isn’t clever, any more than calling it American Dream) is likely to create antipathy towards its content and ensure any potential audience won’t inquire further.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Well, it seems our Mr Steed is not such an efficient watchdog after all.

The Avengers 2.7: The Decapod
A title suggesting some variety of monstrous aquatic threat for Steed and Julie Stevens’ Venus Smith. Alas, the reality is much more mundane. The Decapod refers to a Mongo-esque masked wrestler, one who doesn’t even announce “I will destroy you!” at the top of his lungs. Still, there’s always Philip “Solon” Madoc looking very shifty to pass the time.

Madoc is Stepan, a Republic of the Balkans embassy official and the brother-in-law of President Yakob Borb (Paul Stassino). There’s no love lost between him and his ladies’ man bro, and dark deeds are taking place with the embassy confines, but who is responsible proves elusive. Steed is called in, or rather calls Venus in as a replacement, when Borb’s private secretary is murdered by Mongo. Steed isn’t buying that she slipped and broke her neck in the shower; “I shouldn’t like a similar accident to happen to you” he informs the President.

The trail leads to wrestling bouts at the public baths, where the Butcher…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

It always seems a bit abstract, doesn’t it? Other people dying.

Game of Thrones Season Six
(SPOILERS) The most distracting thing about Season Six of Game of Thrones (and I’ve begun writing this at the end of the seventh episode, The Broken Man) is how breakneck its pace is, and how worryingly – only relatively, mind – upbeat it’s become. Suddenly, characters are meeting and joining forces, not necessarily mired in pits of despair but actually moving towards positive, attainable goals, even if those goals are ultimately doomed (depending on the party concerned). It feels, in a sense, that liberated from George R R Martin’s text, producers are going full-throttle, and you half-wonder if they’re using up too much plot and revelation too quickly, and will run out before the next two seasons are up. Then, I’m naturally wary of these things, well remembering how Babylon 5 suffered from packing all its goods into Season Four and was then given an ultimately wasted final season reprieve.

I’ve started this paragraph at the end of the eighth episode, No One (t…

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

Genuine eccentrics are a dying breed.

The Avengers 3.11: Build a Better Mousetrap
This really oughtn’t to work, seeing as it finds The Avengers flirting with youth culture, well outside its comfort zone, and more precisely with a carefree biker gang who just want to have a good time and dance to funky music in a barn all night long. Not like the squares. Not like John Steed… who promptly brings them on side and sends them off on a treasure hunt! Add a into the mix couple of dotty old dears in a windmill– maybe witches – up to who knows what, and you have very much the shape of the eccentric settings and scenarios to come.

Cynthia (Athene Seyler) and Ermyntrude (Nora Nicholson) are introduced as a butter-wouldn’t sisters who, concerned over the young bikers riding nearby, threaten that “We’ll put a spell on you”. But this amounts to misdirection in an episode that is remarkably effective in wrong-footing the audience (abetted to by Harold Goodwin’s landlord Harris: “Witches, that’s what they are. Witches”). We might have caus…