I’m not ashamed to admit, I’m a fan of Tom Cruise movies. Not a fan of Tom Cruise the person, I should add, having never met him, but I have enjoyed his screen presence for about thirty years now. I think he’s a pretty decent actor too, when he tries – something he hasn’t done a lot of in a long time. Having watched his last offering The Mummy fall on the critics’ sword, and mostly fail to capture the imaginations of the paying public, his career badly needed a shot in the arm. It so happens that American Made, his second cinematic release of 2017, does exactly that.
For anyone who didn’t know (I only knew the story in passing), American Made is the story of Barry Seal, who dipped out on his TWA pilot career to eventually become a drug smuggler for a major Mexican cartel, whose membership at the time included a young Pablo Escobar, and ultimately turned informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency during the Reagan presidency’s “war on drugs” policy. American Made, then, is the “true story” of Barry Seal. Though having researched for this review, it seems about as “true” as any Hollywood biopic is starring a big name.
While watching this, I was constantly reminded of the Scorsese/DiCaprio blockbuster The Wolf Of Wall Street. In that movie, an unscrupulous penny trader rises to the top of the food chain, makes a ton of money, but is eventually brought back down to Earth by his hubris. Justin Belfort is charismatic, has a cute blonde wife, and has the force of will to accomplish everything he sets out to do. Just like Barry Seal – or at least the Tom Cruise version of Barry Seal. It’s interesting to note that Seal has been played by a number of actors in the past, including Dennis Hopper, and I can’t help think that this latest version of the story was requested after the success of The Wolf Of Wall Street. It’s a glossy, good looking, fast-paced production designed to give Cruise the kind of role that could easily be a fit for DiCaprio too. In addition, there are a number of cutesy little scenes that also reminded me a lot of the Scorsese movie. In telling the story of someone who appears to have been a bit of a sleazeball in real life, under Doug Liman and Tom Cruise’s stewardship, it’s a playful, engaging story about a guy who gets in over his head, manipulated by everyone around him. A “fun lie based on a true story”, as director Doug Liman described it.
There wasn’t a lot I didn’t like about the movie, I have to say. Even though it echoed The Wolf Of Wall Street almost from the get go, I didn’t mind drawing that comparison, and to be clear, I don’t feel American Made’s intent was to cynically hit the same notes, mostly because this is a high quality production, and Cruise’s performance is pretty great. He makes the role of Seal effortlessly enjoyable to watch – a real contrast from his more recent, robotic action-hero roles, with the exception of Edge of Tomorrow, a movie I really enjoyed. Here, Cruise rebounds with all the good natured charm he’s capable of, and his portrayal reminded me a little of Jerry Maguire. It helps that Cruise is still somehow able to retain his youthful appearance, it works perfectly with this portrayal. At 55, Cruise is nine years older than Seal was in the film’s later scenes that take place in 1986, but the character feels a lot younger than even 46, something Cruise is able to pull off believably. With a different actor, the overall feeling of the movie would have been substantially different. In short, it’s a role that Cruise was perfect to play.
The movie story of Barry Seal feels completely manufactured, though. From early on, when Seal is recruited by “Shafer” (played by Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, Mother!, in a likeable performance), the story departs from reality, setting Seal up as a good natured patsy, whose thirst for adventure and eventual greed is exploited by every person of power he encounters from the late 70s to the mid 80s. Here, the moral quandries of taking part in running guns and drugs are not Seal’s to fret over – these decisions are made for him by everyone else. The effect on Cruise’s Seal character is that by the end of the movie you’re rooting for him when the his house of cards begins to collapse.
Gleeson is good, and he’s someone I enjoy watching. I can’t say the same for Caleb Landry Jones, though. I literally cannot stand this actor, and when he appears on screen for the first time in the movie as Seal’s redneck brother in law, I leaned over to my wife and muttered, “Man, I hate this guy.” But I have to say, if someone was going to be hired for the part, Jones was pretty perfect for it. If you want someone to play an annoying or obnoxious ass, Jones is the go-to. Witness him in Byzantium and Get Out for further proof. In fact, Jones’s character is responsible for the weakest part of the movie, in that almost nothing is made of his character when he’s suddenly no longer around, even by his sister, played by Sarah Wright.
The downside of going in the direction that it does is that the movie feels lightweight in comparison to what the “true” story of Barry Seal surely must have been. It’s unlikely the real Barry Seal was a likeable antihero unaware of how deep he was sinking, and in some respects, it’s the kind of story that would work well with Michael Mann directing it. For me, though, it gave me the chance to enjoy watching Cruise do something he hasn’t done in a long time: act.
© Andrew Hope, 2017