American Made (2017) Review

THE PRICE OF THE AMERICAN DREAM


 

Back in 2014, actor Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman teamed up together for the successful sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow. Set sometime in the near distant future, the film (sometimes called Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow by some), which starred Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, and Brendan Gleeson, tells the story of William “Bill” Cage, a major in the United Defense Force (UDF), who is forced against his will to participate in a combat battle against an advanced alien race called Mimics. Unfortunately, Cage is exposed something peculiar, with him dying on the field of battle and waking up several hours prior to the invasion; forcing himself to relive the day’s events in an endless “looped” cycle. This sci-fi take on the “Groundhog Day” effect was somewhat unconventional for the genre (and for movies currently running in 2014), which made Edge of Tomorrow a very unique and entertaining film to watch. The film, which grossed roughly $370 million worldwide, was critically praised by critics and moviegoers for its concept, humor, visual alien (Mimic) design, and of Cruise’s performance as well as Blunt’s performance. Now, three years later, Universal Pictures reunites the pair (Cruise and Liman) for an examination at the illegal dark side of the “American Dream” in the film American Made. Does this movie find truth in this “based on a true story” feature or does it fail to produce a substance within its crime drama?

THE STORY


In the late 1970s, Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) has settled into a mundane life of a TWA pilot. He’s a devoted to his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright), and their kids, but Barry is bored with the daily task that his career profession requires of him. As luck would have it, Barry’s desire for “change” is presented in the form of Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA operative who offers the TWA pilot a chance at something more exhilarating, sending him to spy on the growing unrest in Central America (by taking fly-by photographs from his plane), where the American-backed Contras are battling with the Soviet-backed Sandinistas. Over time, Barry begins to carry out additional operations (via Schafer’s request), but his antics attract the attention of three South American businessman, the founder of the Medellin Cartel, with Barry agreeing to smuggle their shipments of cocaine into the United States for a very handsome price. Working all the angles, playing both sides, and expanding his operations, Barry becomes caught up in his lucrative financial success of army smuggler, dealing with various dangerous types that swirl around him and his ego as he soon scrambles to cover all the bases within the deadly game he’s playing in.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


I remember seeing Edge of Tomorrow in theaters and I actually found it to be interesting as well as entertaining. Like some out there, I believe Tom Cruise was hitting a rut of several bland / mediocre movies prior to this movie, including films like Knight and Day, Jack Reacher, and Oblivion. Although, his roles in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rock of Ages were better, but the actor need something better and something different for him to attached to. Thus, the sci-fi action film of Edge of Tomorrow was a perfect answer to the find, with many praising the film’s narrative, Liman’s overall direction of the film, and Cruise’s performance as William Cage. Plus, Blunt’s performance as Sergeant Rita Vrataski (the “Angel of Verdun”) was excellent in it as well. It was definitely a surprise hit movie for me (was expecting it to be a summer blockbuster flop in 2014), but Edge of Tomorrow did indeed to be a memorable one that summer of movies lineups (the same summer that saw the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and X-Men: Days of Future Past). Also, as a side-note, a sequel titled Live Die Repeat and Repeat, is currently in development and I do hope it’s good.

So, with Edge of Tomorrow being a critical praised feature, this brings me to my current review of American Made, which sees the reteaming of Tom Cruise and Doug Liman for this project. Those expecting something similar to Edge of Tomorrow are going to be disappointed as American Made, which is based off of a true story, is more of a crime saga that follows the protagonist of Barry Seal. I do remember first seeing this movie’s trailer when I went to go see Tom Cruise’s other 2017 film The Mummy (a very disappointing reboot / remake film) and was somewhat taking in by the film’s narrative. Thus, I was curious to see how American Made would ultimately shape up to be. So, what did I think of it? Well, for starters, it was the better than The Mummy, so that’s something good to hear (at the very least). While there are some problems with the film, American Made is a crime caper that’s very interesting from start to finish thanks to Liman’s direction and Cruise’s performance of the film’s central antihero character of Barry Seal.

So, while director Doug Liman directed Edge of Tomorrow, he also directed other films such as The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper, and The Wall. Given the source material presented (i.e. the real-life account of Barry Seal), Liman shapes American Made to be vehicle for actor Tom Cruise to perform as the film’s central character. Ultimately, this works within the movie’s favor, finding Cruise perfect in the role (more on the below), while Liman helms the feature in undertaking this story of rogue maverick pilot and his crazy journey. Perhaps that’s what makes American Made so intriguing as its premise so unorthodox on how Barry was able to achieve all that he did and was able to continuingly do it for quite some time. That’s where the movie shine as Liman embraces the absurd and wild journey that Barry undergoes (presenting the film with a lot of comedic scenes and bits) and the elation of his sudden wealth and outlaw freedom. It’s also interesting on how the US government (CIA and the Regan Administration) basically used Barry and then discarded the way that they did. Granted, I know that Liman and the film’s screenplay writer Gary Spinelli most likely too “poetic liberties” in presenting Barry Seal’s story in American Made, but, given this is a “based on a true story” film, I’m sure there’s a lot of concrete truth within the story being told.

As for craftsmanship, American Made is a sturdy piece of filmmaking, finding a lot moviemaking nuances solid from setting designs (Dan Weil) to costumes (Kym Barrett), to editing (Andrew Mondshein), and to the cinematographer (Cesar Charlone), who does some impressive free-flying handheld camerawork.

While the story of Barry Seal is quite unique and Liman adds and interesting perspective to this cinematic true crime tale, American Made does get held back by some of its more weaker moments, which hinders the movie from truly great. As a whole, American Made, will having an intriguing story to follow, ultimately falls prey to being somewhat of a conventional construct. It goes on to the explain Barry’s story (from start to finish) in a familiar path of showing his rise and fall of his deals and smuggling operations, which doesn’t break the status quo of similar styled films that came before. Additionally, while some areas of the movie “fly high”, other parts drag, especially scenes containing the character of Barry’s wayward brother-in-law JB. Also, it’s kind of hard to discern what Liman and his team want to say about American Made (the overall message). Is it to be a cautionary tale? Is it to be a political statement to the government’s involvement in other countries affairs? Is it ambiguous (shady) story of reaching the lofty ideal of the “American Dream”? Well, the movie (I think) tries to be all of that, but it’s never really defined as such.

Another problem is found within the history context that the movie follows. Spanning roughly a decade (from the late 70s to the late 80s), American Made’s narrative has a lot of ground to cover and with a lot of countries, factions, and history to explain. Yes, the movie tries to explain what’s going on (via some animated sequences and several voiceover exposition sequences, but Liman and the film’s screenplay writers “assume” you know the history about this time period (i.e. the Iran-Contra affair). Thus, the backdrop setting of American Made can be a bit confusing at times, especially on who’s Barry working for in one scene and then working for another person entirely in another scene. For those who don’t know (I had to do some online research after seeing the movie), the Iran-Contra was a political scandal that struck the Regan administration, displaying the government and the intelligence community of their willingness to undermine the law for their own political means. In the end, the film feels like it undercut the time to fully explain what’s going on in this particular timeframe as it would’ve been somewhat beneficial for the movie to be a tad bit longer to incorporate more of the film’s time period setting.

Naturally, the movie’s big ticketed star attached to the feature is Tom Cruise as the charismatic daredevil maverick smuggler Barry Seal. As stated in several previous reviews, Cruise, known for his roles in Top Gun, Risky Business, and Jerry Maguire, his appeal has somewhat diminished over the years (i.e. his divorce with Katie Homes and his outspoken media outburst on scientology). That being said, Cruise’s performance in American Made is actually one of the best aspect of American Made. While the actor basically phoned in his role Nick Morton in 2017’s The Mummy (his last film prior to American Made), Cruise’s portrayal of Barry Seal in this movie is pretty good, playing up the wild and remorseless nature of Barry as he plunges headfirst into his shady deals of being a smuggler. As to be expected, Cruise does indeed rise to challenge of playing such a character, bringing a blended mix of smug charisma and maverick / daredevil cheekiness to Barry Seal and Cruise fixes seem to be having fun in this movie. The downside to the character of Barry in American Made lies not with Cruise’s debonair performance (he even does his own flying stunts for most scenes), but rather within his character evolution throughout the film. He’s pretty much a stagnant character that really doesn’t have that much growth within the film’s narrative. However, Cruise’s acting charisma elevates the character of Barry, which is a big plus for the movie. All in all, despite the writing being bland in his character development, Cruise flies high as the daredevil Barry Seal.

The supporting cast and characters in American Made are of a mixed variety. Again, it’s not so much on the actors / actresses portrayal of the characters themselves, but rather the film’s writing (and screen-time) that’s allotted to them respective characters. Perhaps the best supporting player within the character of Monty Schafer, Barry’s shady CIA contact, who is played by actor Domhnall Gleeson. Known for his roles in Ex Machina, The Revenant, and the upcoming film Goodbye, Christopher Robin, Gleeson, like Cruise in this movie, seems to be having fun in his American Made’s character, finding Schafer to be a duplicitous CIA handler who gets in way over his head in his handling of Barry’s situations and schemes. Behind Gleeson’s Schafer, the only other side character that makes a lasting impression is within actor Caleb Landry Jones (X-Men: First Class and Get Out) as Barry’s dimwitted brother-in-law JB. While Jones nails the character overall look and bravado down, the character itself is a bit superfluous to the film’s narrative as Liman focuses on JB for a large part of the second act, which is where the movie starts to drag. Actress Sarah Wright (Marry Me and Parks and Recreation) does what she can within the role of Barry’s wife Lucy Seal (again due to the film’s writing), while the Medlin Cartel kingpins, including Alejandro Edda (The Bridge and Fear the Walking Dead) as Jorge Ochoa and Mauricio Mejía (Narcos) as Pablo Escobar, shine in their respective roles. Lastly, character actors Jesse Plemons (Battleship and Black Mass) and Jayma Mays (Glee and The Millers) as a pair of Arkansas law officials (Plemons as Sheriff Downing and Mays as Dana Sibota), who take an interest in the Seal’s family shady deals, but their involvement in the movie could’ve been expanded upon as it seems a lot of their character’s material ended up on American Made’s cutting room floor.

FINAL THOUGHTS


The sky’s the limit for pilot Barry Seal as he army / drug smuggler (building a fortune in process) in the movie American Made. Director Doug Liman newest film showcases (under a cinematic lens) the larger-than-life tale of Barry Seal on how he achieved the much coveted “American Dream” through his shady dealings. While the movie doesn’t break the mold within the antihero crime cappers genre and does need some improvement within its screenplay (most notably within its character development and history backdrop setting), the film does fly high when dealing with the wild / absurd journey that Barry undergoes, thanks to Liman’s direction and Cruise’s performance as well as the rest of the character actors. To me, this movie was good. It wasn’t incredible awesome, but the movie held its own, presented an interesting tale (of which I didn’t know of) and kept me invested in the movie from onset to conclusion. Plus, I’m not a huge fan of Cruise (other than his character Ethan Hunt from the Mission Impossible movies), but he was great as Barry Seal and showcases the actor in a different light from his action / thriller features of late. Thus, I would give this movie my recommended stamp of approval as it’s a change of pace from the recent movie lineups that are current out there. As I stated, American Made isn’t perfect film, but neither was Barry Seal. Thus, if you take the movie at face value, you’ll enjoy it. So just sit back and enjoy the ride!

3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended)

 

Released On: September 29th, 2017
Reviewed On: September 30th, 2017

American Made  is 115 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity

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