American Made (2017)

Directed by Doug Liman

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There’s a good story somewhere in here, but American Made doesn’t see it.  This is a crazy story based on true events, the type that has to someday become a movie, though much of that insanity is watered down by the ways in which this feels like it’s ripping off so many other movies, whether that’s GoodfellasBlow or even a previous Tom Cruise movie, Knight and Day.

Barry Seal (Cruise) is an airline pilot who craves a little risk in his life.  We know this because one night, while on a red eye, he decides to disengage auto pilot and give the passengers a bit of a turbulent scare.  He gives us a sly smile, and that’s how we’re supposed to know that Barry is looking for something new and exciting in his life.

It’s one of those cutesy script moments that suffers because we can see the box it’s checking off: establish Barry as a risk taker.  The story then uses this justification to thrust us into a truly insane world in which true character motivation goes out the door, and the story is propelled by a series of disconnected sequences stitched lazily together by poor narration.

The story really is crazy.  You’ll probably be better off diving down a wikipedia wormhole on the real Barry Seal.  In the movie he flies for TWA, then begins running spy operations for the CIA.  When he’s caught by the Medellin drug cartel they enlist him to smuggle cocaine back into the States.  Soon after Barry finds himself smuggling guns into South America to fight America’s secret war, and later on in the story the White House will use him to capture incriminating evidence of Pablo Escobar.

It’s a lot, and it gets Barry insanely rich.  We watch his progress over the course of nearly a decade, linked together by a home video tape recorded throughout 1986 which allows him to comment on the events of the story, winking and letting us know how crazy it is.  This commentary is like that of Henry Hill in Goodfellas, and the snark is like that of The Wolf of Wall Street.

This is really just to say that if you like those movies (and they’re pretty good so why not), then you might like this.  The problem is that such appeal can only last for so long before it wears thin since American Made doesn’t do it as well as Martin Scorsese.

On the other hand, maybe the constant plot turns will keep you on edge enough to enjoy this movie.  It’s certainly unpredictable, and there is a certain thrill in that, but it’s the same type of thrill as HBO’s Westworld, a show which I had trouble sticking with in the second season once the plot turns yielded diminishing returns, exposing the lack of interest I had in individual characters.

Barry isn’t much of a character.  He’s just Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise, and Tom Cruise is quite good at being Tom Cruise.  He’s charismatic and a little crazy, not unlike many of his younger roles (he’s an older, southern version of his Top Gun character), but his defining characteristics are the same things we associate with Tom Cruise.

Similarly his wife (Sarah Wright) feels like she’s doing her best Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) impression, and though I really enjoy the work of Domhnall Gleeson, he’s playing some character I can’t quite put my finger on.  There’s a scene midway through the film where Gleeson, playing a CIA operative, stands on a car and cheers for Barry like a parody of a mid-80s rock band’s middle-aged manager.  The movie magic in this moment, as in others, is completely gone.  The spell is broken, if it was ever cast, and you can practically feel what it was like to be on set, the assistant director telling everyone to be quiet, and then Gleeson jumping from zero to a hundred until they call cut.

It feels forced.  There is meant to be a hyperactive rhythm to this whole movie, and there are a few montages that effectively capture this energy.  For the most part, however, the story struggles to keep up its own momentum, like a runner maxing out in the first mile of a marathon.

The movie starts out at close to a hundred, in a way desensitizing us to its own intended effect, and when the movie does slow down it asks us to care about characters it never bothered to establish in any meaningful way.  For example, the first time we meet Lucy, Barry’s wife, she is hurrying to make herself look nice in anticipation of leaping into bed with him after his return from a long flight.  In this moment we technically learn something about her, but all we really learn is that she wants to please her husband.  Because of the overt sexuality of the scene this works less as a character moment and more as the studio-mandated appeal to sixteen year old boys everywhere.

Lucy has a little Skyler White in her (Breaking Bad) before she turns into Margot Robbie, and from that point on her story holds no real intrigue or surprises.  We know what’s going to happen, and then it does.

Again, that’s fine, but it just feels like the royalty free imitation of something deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness.

So the movie is inconsistent, and I have to imagine it just never really came together in the edit the way director Doug Liman imagined.  You can see the vision behind the movie, and it’s certainly ambitious.  No shot ever seems duplicated as the camera jumps all over the place in each scene.  This gives the movie a patched together feel like in Richard Linklater’s Tape or an old French New Wave film.  Though I didn’t feel the movie captured the insanity it tried to depict, there is a certain appeal to the idea, even if the execution wasn’t quite there.

American Made just tries its hardest, and if you can so clearly see the effort put into a movie then it probably didn’t work.

Up Next: All the Real Girls (2003), The Seventh Continent (1989), Columbus (2017)

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