The pairing of Tom Cruise and director Doug Liman previously delivered the unjustly ignored (then justly rediscovered) ‘Edge of Tomorrow’, a delightfully clever sci-fi action epic. Now they’ve made ‘American Made’, a film that’s difficult to describe but thoroughly entertaining and righteously cynical about American values and Cruise’s onscreen persona (which were once one and the same thing). The messy movie emerges as one of the best things the star has done in a decade.
The wild ride is based on a true story, in as much as these sorts of things can be. Cruise stars as Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot who’s hired by the CIA and enters a nutty odyssey of money, drugs and power. When Domhnall Gleeson’s oddball agent approaches Seal in the early 1980s, the plan is for him to fly over various Central American countries to take spy photos of burgeoning armies. That leads to Seal also getting recruited to run drugs for various cartels (including for Pablo Escobar). He gets caught, but his handler spins that into a new job running guns and smuggling in Contra resistance soldiers who are theoretically fighting for U.S. interests. Seal complies and also keeps running drugs. The business expands exponentially. Money seems to fall from the sky. Of course, this sort of thing has to come crashing down eventually. However, since the U.S. government is directly and illegally involved, that crash can’t exactly come in expected ways.
Does that sound a little overstuffed, convoluted and confusing? Well, it should. The story is insane and filled with so many ins and outs that it’s often tough to keep straight just what the hell is happening. That’s almost deliberate, though. The movie fudges facts and condenses time and characters in the service of delivering a head rush of a movie as giddily in love with itself as the egotistical protagonist. It’s hard to keep everything straight because everyone involved in the story felt the same way. The situation was a mess, with the CIA uncertain of whatever the hell they were doing, Seal running on pure momentum and greed, morality thrown out the window, and so many loose ends that it was impossible for anyone to properly clear things up.
Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli opt to tell the story in the first-person montage style that Martin Scorsese used in ‘Goodfellas’ and has essentially become a genre staple ever since (‘Blow’, ‘Menace II Society’, ‘Trainspotting’, ‘Boogie Nights’, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, etc.). Cruise narrates throughout despite being unreliable. The film has a constant rush of story beats without conventional plot. Instead, it flows by on momentum, cinematic stimulus, and insanity. Liman directs in a flurry of furious style. Edits are jarring, the camera is jittery, and nothing ever slows down. The story is filled with wild flying action scenes (pretty damn great ones too), but even quiet character beats are treated like mini set-pieces with style and speed to spare. Characters seem to drop in and out at random, depending on how the hyperactive Liman/Seal wants to tell the story. This means that few characters are properly developed beyond Seal (his wife and children are particularly short-changed), but that kind of works. After all, this is a movie about a guy who rarely considered anyone other than himself and never thought about consequences. We get caught up in the insanity with him.
If there’s a genre here, it’s probably satirical comedy despite the biography and action trappings. The film is pretty damn hysterical (in both senses of the world) and also rather pointed. This is a perverse attack on America’s twin obsessions with capitalism and militarism. On the one hand, it’s a fantasy. Seal becomes an instant multimillionaire for doing what he loves and the U.S. military is able to secretly finance and facilitate a war without pesky politics interfering. However, neither success is admirable or positive. It’s all messy and failed. The money doesn’t last and the war is lost. Nobody looks good by the end because they were all just flying by the seat of their pants and enjoying giddy sensations without considering what the point of anything was. That’s a pretty cynical take on certain American dreams and invites plenty of readings, all intentional.
On top of all that is the delicious fact that Tom Cruise is at the center of everything. The quintessential American movie star is here looking great and playing a typical Tom Cruise character who smiles, charms, and proves to be better than everyone at everything. But it’s all in the service of dirty drug deals and false warmongering. That’s an amusing inversion of the Tom Cruise persona and is clearly not lost on the star. (I mean, he did play a pilot in a pretty popular movie in the ’80s, didn’t he?) He’s having fun sullying and toying with his image, delivering one of his most charming performances in years, that’s even better considering how downright inappropriate it is for Cruise to be having so much fun being so bad. It suggests that Cruise may still have a little self-awareness left, even though the fact that he’s not doing his usual blitzkrieg promotional attack suggests a little nervousness on the star’s part about what he’s done. (Or perhaps a certain church doesn’t want its scion talking up such a morally questionable role.)
‘American Made’ is a damn fun romp that leaves a surprisingly bitter yet thoughtful aftertaste. It’s the most purely entertaining and exciting Tom Cruise movie in years and also a politicized pisstake on everything that traditional Tom Cruise movies represent. There’s something to be said for how clever that is, and the fact that Cruise and Liman managed to sneak this thing through the studio system is somewhat of a miracle. Hopefully people show up. It’s one thing if audiences want to ignore auto-pilot Cruise failures like ‘The Mummy’ or that ‘Jack Reacher’ nonsense. But if the guy actually comes out to play and uses his star power to get an interesting film made and spat out into wide release, viewers should really show up again.