(2017—Director: Matthew Vaughn)
(out of 5 stars)
“All this is legal?” “If you’re working for the good guys, yeah. Just don’t get caught.” — Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) and Agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson)
Potential spoilers below
Director Doug Liman is one 21st-century director whose reputation tends to fall under the radar with even the slightest disappointment. His independent rise with Swingers and Go led to box-office success with The Bourne Identity and Mr & Mrs. Smith. Jumper and Fair Game, however, showed his struggle to maintain success on the critical and commercial fronts, respectively. Even the strong critical approval of 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow just managed to make the film a small profit with the help of international markets. (Edge of Tomorrow is one of my top ten films of 2014 and is by far the film I watched the most that year.)
Liman chose to release two films in 2017. The first, May’s minimalist war thriller The Wall, follows Aaron Taylor-Johnson and John Cena trapped by an Iraqi sniper—a competent short-film premise stretched to eighty-one minutes. The Wall came and went, both in the memories of its few viewers and at the box office where it barely broke even. The second is the subject of this review—American Made, a biographical crime film about a real-life airline pilot who got entangled with the CIA, Central American revolutionary forces, and the rising drug cartels during the early half of the 1980s. Despite its energetic script by Gary Spinelli (also writing Liman’s next film Chaos Walking), American Made tries to contain a sprawling, Wolf of Wall Street-like story within two hours. The result, despite the star power of Tom Cruise, is an exhausting diversion with little staying power.
It is the late 1970s and the United States is preparing for the Reagan administration. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) seeks excitement beyond his secure, if rather mundane, career as a TWA pilot and as husband to Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen, NBC’s Marry Me). During a layover, he chances upon CIA agent Monty Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson, Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Mother!). Agent Schafer tasks Barry to flying dangerous reconnaissance missions over Central America, where revolutions have begun to brew. Barry later acts as courier between the CIA and Panama’s General Noriega and flies guns and Contras to and from Honduras to help them fight the Sandinista-led Nicaraguans. Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda, AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejía, Netflix’s Narcos) of the budding Medellín Cartel also exploit Barry’s piloting skills, rewarding him handsomely for transporting their cocaine to the United States. With the CIA willing to turn a blind eye towards his illegal activities for the limited time he was in control, Barry Seal became instrumental in the drug-fueled, revolution-heavy political scandals that would define the 1980s for the western hemisphere.
American Made shines best when Tom Cruise’s Barry is at his most paranoid. Between the CIA, the volatile Central American nations, drug lords, and his own family, Tom Cruise’s Barry takes on an impossible amount of accountability. Once his cover is blown, the paranoia is most palpable, particularly during one scene towards the film’s end. Barry, recalling the death of another character from around the story’s midpoint, hesitates before he inserts his keys into the ignition. Elsewhere, Domhnall Gleeson’s CIA agent Schafer possesses a bemused confidence and level-headed coolness that further showcases his acting range. The film also boasts a delightful, color-saturated look, courtesy of Oscar-nominated cinematographer César Charlone (City of God), that suits the excess of the eighties well. (Kudos to whomever decided on the retro-stylizations of the opening studio logos.)
That said, the rest of American Made moves too fast to leave a more lasting impression. With breathing breaks in short supply throughout the montage and voiceover-heavy runtime, star Tom Cruise can do little but revert to his trademark charm. It quite surprised me when Cruise spoke with a Louisiana accent, even though he speaks without one for the first quarter or so of the film. Because of Cruise’s presence, the rest of the characters, save for Gleeson’s Agent Schafer, end up as mere faces rather than compelling side characters. I may have written off last year’s similarly-themed The Infiltrator (starring Bryan Cranston) as a discount American Hustle at the time. However in retrospect, that eighties-era crime drama amounts to more effective cinema than American Made. The Infiltrator puts the characters before the drugs and stresses the pressure and ultimate tragedy of creating fake bonds with criminals just to have them arrested in the end. American Made, meanwhile, prioritizes Tom Cruise to the point that the script’s many character subplots and dynamics all come and go as the story putters to its historically-accurate conclusion. Thus, American Made will only survive as a fun, ‘80s-era smuggling romp, never rising to become an engrossing, socio-econo-political bite at the Reagan administration.
There have been directors who, in one year, have released two good films (e.g. Alfred Hitchcock in 1940 and 1954; Ingmar Bergman in 1957) and a few who have released both a good and a bad film (e.g. Tom McCarthy in 2015, with The Cobbler and the Best Picture-winning Spotlight). Doug Liman may be the most reputable director of recent years who made two halfway-decent films in one year. The Wall tried to do too much with too little, while American Made has done too little with too much. Coming off of the critically-acclaimed and rewatchable Edge of Tomorrow, I wonder what film would have resulted if Doug Liman had made one great film for the year instead. Whatever his intentions, Liman’s 2017 proves that two halfway-decent films do not make one great film. Hopefully, with Chaos Walking and the Edge of Tomorrow sequel, Liman can put 2017 behind him.
(Parental Note: American Made has been rated R by the MPAA “for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity”. It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC for “very strong language” and L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for “[short] graphic scenes of marital lovemaking, a glimpse of full nudity and implied aberrant behavior, some stylized combat and other violence, a drug theme, several uses of profanity as well as pervasive rough and much crude language” [critic’s amendment].)