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…

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…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

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.

Ain't nobody likes the Middle East, buddy. There's nothing here to like.

Body of Lies (2008)
(SPOILERS) Sir Ridders stubs out his cigar in the CIA-assisted War on Terror, with predictably gormless results. Body of Lies' one saving grace is that it wasn't a hit, although that more reflects its membership of a burgeoning club where no degree of Hollywood propaganda on the "just fight" (with just a smidgeon enough doubt cast to make it seem balanced at a sideways glance) was persuading the public that they wanted the official fiction further fictionalised.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Like an antelope in the headlights.

Black Panther (2018)
(SPOILERS) Like last year’s Wonder Woman, the hype for what it represents has quickly become conflated with Black Panther’s perceived quality. Can 92% and 97% of critics respectively really not be wrong, per Rotten Tomatoes, or are they – Armond White aside – afraid that finding fault in either will make open them to charges of being politically regressive, insufficiently woke or all-round, ever-so-slightly objectionable? As with Wonder Woman, Black Panther’s very existence means something special, but little about the movie itself actually is. Not the acting, not the directing, and definitely not the over-emphatic, laboured screenplay. As such, the picture is a passable two-plus hours’ entertainment, but under-finessed enough that one could easily mistake it for an early entry in the Marvel cycle, rather than arriving when they’re hard-pressed to put a serious foot wrong.