‘American Made’ Review: A Sluggish Crime Biopic Saved By a Full-Throttle Tom Cruise Performance
If you like action movies, Tom Cruise starring in one is an easy sell. You’re guaranteed lots of running, Cruise performing his own crazy stunts, and a feverish performance that never runs low on gas. All of that makes Cruise the best part of American Made, the Doug Liman-directed action biopic that suffers from sluggish pacing, but proves Cruise is still a damn good movie star.
Cruise portrays Barry Seal, a real-life airline pilot, drug smuggler, and (alleged) CIA gun-runner who was a major player in the Iran-Contra affair. Once named the most important witness in the history of the DEA, Seal has a life so wild it was practically built for big-screen treatment. American Made, written by Gary Spinelli, details the pilot’s many alliances with the DEA, CIA, and the Medellín Cartel, from the end of Jimmy Carter's presidency through the Reagan era. It opens in 1978, when Cruise’s Barry is working as a bored TWA pilot who gets a thrill off smuggling cases of cigars into the country in his briefcase. Domnhall Gleeson’s CIA agent Monty Schafer convinces him to ditch commercial flying and serve his country by spying on “enemies of democracy” in South America. Barry gets hooked up with his own special plane, equipped with hidden cameras, and soon sets off to Guatemala to snap photos of Communist compounds as men fire machine guns at him from below. Dangerous, sure, but Barry (as well as Cruise) is having the time of his life.
That’s nothing compared to what’s to come. Eventually Barry gets scooped up by the Medellín cartel’s key players, Jorge Luis (Alejandro Edda), Pablo Escobar (Maurico Mejía), and Carlos Lehder (Fredy Yate Escobar). Lured by the promise of cash money, Barry starts transporting plane-loads of cocaine into the U.S. Later, he builds up his own fleet with a gang of pilots who help him juggle his cocaine smuggling business with supplying weapons to Contras in Nicaragua for the CIA. Soon he has more money than his mansion can hold – literally, Cruise gets buried by a pile of cash spilling out of a barn door in one scene.
Seal’s story has all the ingredients for a fun action romp – Drugs! Political scandal! Endless mountains of cash and great hair and Tom Cruise yelping ‘Woo hoo!’ – but as thrilling as it all sounds, American Made struggles to turn up the heat under much of its too-crazy-to-be-true story. Spinelli’s script is clearly aiming for a Goodfellas vibe, with its freeze-frames, obvious needle drops, and Cruise’s voiceover narration. But the film never achieves Scorsese’s energy or momentum. The jokes don’t always land, the characters aren’t as interesting as they should be – and hey, we’re talking about Pablo Escobar here, who gets maybe four lines – and the whole thing crawls along in a way that tugs at your attention span.
The film also fails to take advantage of its great supporting cast. Despite a strong turn from Gleeson, one of the most exciting and versatile working actors today, it wastes Jesse Plemons as a respectable local sheriff and Lola Kirke as his suspicious wife. Caleb Landry Jones also shows up in the most Caleb Landry Jones role ever, looking his usual pale, disheveled self – Can someone give this guy some vitamins, please? – as Barry’s problematic brother-in-law JB. Jones is fine, but after Heaven Knows What and Get Out, casting him as the untrustworthy, malicious punk here is just a easy shortcut for a character who never gets developed.
At least there’s Cruise. Though he does his own flying and gets to squeeze in some signature Cruise cardio, American Made is one of the actor’s less action-intensive roles of late. He’s not jumping on to or out of planes, but he gets to exercise his mania in other ways, and it’s what largely keeps the fatigued proceedings afloat. In one scene Barry bursts into his bedroom in the middle of the night, still bruised and bloody from prison, and frantically starts shoving his wife’s dresses into a garbage bag. “We’re moving! We gotta leave before the sun’s up!” He shouts with the glee of a father taking his kids to Disneyland the next morning. Later he crash lands a plane on a quiet suburban street then escapes on a kid’s bicycle while covered head-to-toe in cocaine. Cruise’ Barry never actually does cocaine in the film, but he sure as hell acts like he’s hopped up on stimulants. It’s that signature no-holds-barred vivacity that’s long made Cruise such an entertaining star; it works perfectly here as this cocksure pilot who thinks he’s slightly more clever, and more valuable, than he really is.
American Made certainly won’t rank high on a list of Cruise’ best action flicks, but it won’t unseat The Mummy as the worst Cruise film in recent memory either. It isn’t the charged biopic that a story as fascinating as Seal’s deserves, but it has enough rambunctious delights to get by.
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