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 was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

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.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

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.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

To defeat the darkness out there, you must defeat the darkness inside yourself.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010)
Easily the best of the Narnia films, which is maybe damning it with faint praise. 

Michael Apted does a competent job directing (certainly compared to his Bond film - maybe he talked to his second unit this time), Dante Spinotti's cinematography is stunning and the CGI mostly well-integrated with the action. 

Performance-wise, Will Poulter is a stand-out as a tremendously obnoxious little toff, so charismatic you're almost rooting for him. Simon Pegg replaces Eddie Izzard as the voice of Reepicheep and delivers a touching performance.
***

Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.

Black Hawk Down (2001)
(SPOILERS) Black Hawk Down completed a trilogy of hits for Ridley Scott, a run of consistency he’d not seen even a glimmer of hitherto. He was now a brazenly commercial filmmaker, one who could boast big box office under his belt where previously such overt forays had seen mixed results (Black Rain, G.I. Jane). It also saw him strip away the last vestiges of artistic leanings from his persona, leaving behind, it seemed, only technical virtuosity. Scott was now given to the increasingly thick-headed soundbite (“every war movie is an anti-war movie”) in justification for whatever his latest carry-on carried in terms of controversial elements, and more than happy to bed down with the Pentagon (long-standing collaborators with producer Jerry Bruckheimer) to make a movie that, while depictinga less than auspicious intervention by the US military (“Based on an Actual Event” is a marvellous catch-all for wanton fabrication), managed to turn it into a parade of heroes pe…

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…

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.