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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Espionage isn’t a game, it’s a war.

The Avengers 3.3: The Nutshell
Philip Chambers first teleplay (of two) for the series, and Raymond Menmuir’s second (also of two) as director, The Nutshell is an effective little whodunit in which Steed (again) poses as a bad guy, and Cathy (again) appears to be at loggerheads with him. The difference here is how sustained the pretence is, though; we aren’t actually in on the details until the end, and the whole scenario is played decidedly straight.

Set mostly in a bunker (the Nutshell of the title), quarter of a mile underground and providing protection for the “all the best people” (civil servants bunk on level 43; Steed usually gets off at the 18th) in the event of a thermo-nuclear onslaught, the setting is something of a misdirection, since it is also a convenient place to store national security archives, known as Big Ben (Bilateral Infiltration Great Britain, Europe and North America). Big Ben has been stolen. Or rather, the microfilm with details of all known double agents on bot…

This is no time for puns! Even good ones.

Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014)
Perhaps I've done DreamWorks Animation (SKG, Inc., etc.) a slight injustice. The studio has been content to run an assembly line of pop culture raiding, broad-brush properties and so-so sequels almost since its inception, but the cracks in their method have begun to show more overtly in recent years. They’ve been looking tired, and too many of their movies haven’t done the business they would have liked. Yet both their 2014 deliveries, How to Train Your Dragon 2 and Mr. Peabody & Sherman, take their standard approach but manage to add something more. Dragon 2 has a lot of heart, which one couldn’t really say about Peabody (it’s more sincere elements feel grafted on, and largely unnecessary). Peabody, however, is witty, inventive and pacey, abounding with sight gags and clever asides while offering a time travel plotline that doesn’t talk down to its family audience.

I haven’t seen the The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, from which Mr. Peabody & Sh…

I know what I'm gonna do tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year, and the year after that.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life is an unassailable classic, held up as an embodiment of true spirit of Christmas and a testament to all that is good and decent and indomitable in humanity. It deserves its status, even awash with unabashed sentimentality that, for once, actually seems fitting. But, with the reams of plaudits aimed at Frank Capra’s most enduring film, it is also worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment or two. One can construe a number of not nearly so life-affirming undercurrents lurking within it, both intentional and unintentional on the part of its director. And what better time to Grinch-up such a picture than when bathed in the warmth of a yuletide glow?

The film was famously not a financial success on initial release, as is the case with a number of now hallowed movies, its reputation burgeoning during television screenings throughout the 1970s. Nevertheless, It’s a Wonderful Life garnered a brace of Oscar nominations including Best Picture and…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

He’d been clawed to death, as though by some bird. Some huge, obscene bird.

The Avengers 5.6: The Winged Avenger
Maybe I’m just easily amused, such that a little Patrick Macnee uttering “Ee-urp!” goes a long way, but I’m a huge fan of The Winged Avenger. It’s both a very silly episode and about as meta as the show gets, and one in which writer Richard Harris (1.3: Square Root of Evil, 1.10: Hunt the Man Down) succeeds in casting a wide net of suspects but effectively keeps the responsible party’s identity a secret until late in the game.

Dirty is exactly why you're here.

Sicario 2: Soldado aka Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018)
(SPOILERS) I wasn't among the multitude greeting the first Sicario with rapturous applause. It felt like a classic case of average material significantly lifted by the diligence of its director (and cinematographer and composer), but ultimately not all that. Any illusions that this gritty, violent, tale of cynicism and corruption – all generally signifiers of "realism" – in waging the War on Drugs had a degree of credibility well and truly went out the window when we learned that Benicio del Toro's character Alejandro Gillick wasn't just an unstoppable kickass ninja hitman; he was a grieving ex-lawyer turned unstoppable kickass ninja hitman. Sicario 2: Soldadograzes on further difficult-to-digest conceits, so in that respect is consistent, and – ironically – in some respects fares better than its predecessor through being more thoroughly genre-soaked and so avoiding the false doctrine of "revealing" …

Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

The World is Not Enough (1999)
(SPOILERS) The last Bond film of the 20th century unfortunately continues the downward trend of the Brosnan era, which had looked so promising after the reinvigorated approach to Goldeneye. The World is Not Enough’s screenplay posseses a number of strong elements (from the now ever present Robert Wade and Neal Purvis, and a sophomore Bruce Feirstein), some of which have been recycled in the Craig era, but they’ve been mashed together with ill-fitting standard Bond tropes that puncture any would-be substance (Bond’s last line before the new millennium is one Roger Moore would have relished). And while a structure that stop-starts doesn’t help the overall momentum any, nor does the listlessness of drama director Michael Apted, such that when the sporadic bursts of action do arrive there’s no disguising the joins between first and second unit, any prospect of thrills evidently unsalvageable in the edit.

Taking its cues from the curtailed media satire of Tomorr…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …