VOD film review: American Made
Mark Harrison | On 11, Jan 2018
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones
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Now, here’s a film that might have arrived long after its time, which would have been around the point Martin Scorsese made The Wolf Of Wall Street, if the headlines weren’t so recently dominated by how America promotes cynical opportunists beyond their wildest dreams.
Based on “a true lie”, American Made is the latest film by director Doug Liman, re-teaming him with his Edge Of Tomorrow star Tom Cruise for a film that’s further from the actor’s comfort zone. Cruise plays Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot who was roped into performing covert missions for the CIA in Central America in the late 1970s.
This starts with clandestine surveillance, but escalates to gun running, drug smuggling and moonlighting for both the US government and the Medellin cartel. Seal takes missions from his handler, “Schafer” (Domhnall Gleeson) and from Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) and Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia), while making himself rich and waving off the anxieties of his wife (Sarah Wright) – what could possibly go wrong?
In the same summer that Cruise launched the abortive Dark Universe with the reboot of The Mummy, his role as Seal points the way forward for his career. Don’t get us wrong – if they can all be as good as Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, we’ll watch him as Ethan Hunt in Mission: Impossible sequels for as long as he’s able to make them. But some of us would also like to see him act more, and his Barry Seal is nothing like his other characters. For starters, he is unabashedly a dumbass. Just like Scorsese with Jordan Belfort, Liman pokes the audience’s outrage that someone so openly greedy and stupid can get away with some of this bad behaviour for so long, and Cruise plays the comical audacity of his character to a tee.
There’s a video confessional plot device that recurs throughout the film that really foregrounds how the amoral character neutralises his usual megawatt charisma, but not so much that you can’t laugh at some of the more outrageous set pieces, such as an emergency landing that sees him emerge from the chassis of his plane, covered in cocaine, and bribe a child eyewitness for their silence (and their bicycle).
Those who’ve watched the first season of Netflix’s Narcos will remember the show’s more historically accurate depiction of Seal, and, as the title suggests, this is an American-made perspective on an international crime story. Shooting in a vérité style, Liman pitches Gary Spinelli’s script as a domestic docudrama on both the man, and the system that elevates the man, here personified by Gleeson’s smug, animated handler.
Cruise’s more restrained performance allows his co-star to upstage him every once in a while, and a late moment where “Schafer” proudly comes up with the idea for what would become the Iran-Contra scandal will stuck with you long after watching. Beyond Gleeson, there’s not much to the supporting cast. Sarah Wright is underserved as the disapproving Mrs. Seal, Jesse Plemons pops up all too briefly as a suspicious local sheriff and Caleb Landry Jones turns in one of his ickiest performances to date.
American Made is a rapid-fire tall tale from the land of opportunity, where opportunism actually reigns and a political nightmare is dreamt up by an amoral jackass and some young idiots from an office in Virginia. But, in the face of this, it’s an opportunity for Tom Cruise to show his not inconsiderable range, for Domhnall Gleeson to continue a winning streak by stealing a movie from under him, and for Doug Liman to distinguish himself as a filmmaker working from the left-field, using his grim sense of humour to make interesting subjects irresistibly entertaining.