Director: Doug Liman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright
In recent years the fictional depiction of a violent narcotics underworld seems to have developed into a full-blown obsession. Whether it’s Pablo Escobar embroiled in nationwide warfare or Walter White cooking meth in his underpants, audiences are desperate for their fix (see what I did there?) of drug-smuggling and shady deals. American Made, the newest film from the Bourne Trilogy’s Doug Liman, continues in this vein (and again). However, it is not only the drug smugglers – Pablo Escobar included – whose shadowy underbelly is exposed in this adaptation of the true story of Barry Seal, an ex-airline pilot turned smuggler and CIA operative; the American secret service, too, are exposed as gun-runners with a tendency to turn a blind eye to the law. Who knew, eh?
First, a warning: you’d better be on time and have your popcorn ready, because American Made is waiting around for nobody. After opening credits laced with retro imagery – as befits the film’s timeframe, which spans the late ‘70s and mid-80s – the film jumps straight into action with fast-paced montages and death-defying aerial acrobatics. Barry Seal himself (Tom Cruise) is swiftly drawn into roles within the CIA and the Medellin cartel – roles which are, perhaps, easier to reconcile than you might expect – and seems to take little issue with keeping both a secret from his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids, who are later forced to follow blindly as he relocates them to some run-down town halfway across the country.
We need you to deliver stuff for us.
Whether he’s interacting with passengers, drug smugglers, or Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), the maniacal CIA agent who first recruits him, Seal is portrayed with Cruise’s signature charm throughout. This charm, however, is not enough to form any real relationship between the characters, and this is where American Made’s problems lie. Barring some friction between Seal and his wife, the film’s relentless (and admittedly impressive) set pieces and many secret rendezvous exist at the expense of an emotional connection between himself and his family.
From the get-go, the daredevil pilot is eager to perform bigger and more dangerous tasks with a blasé disregard for his children, and the extent of his relationship with them is building them a swimming pool once the money comes pouring in. This representation of the pilot even drew criticism from his own real-life family, who took issue with inaccuracies in his character. Indeed, Seal’s seeming indifference towards the life he has built pre-CIA significantly reduces the tension in aerial chase scenes or precarious meetings with Nicaraguan ‘Contras’ and lends little emotional impact to the film’s otherwise dramatic conclusion.
Is this all legal?
Nevertheless, the film just about gets by on spectacle and the occasional comedy moment, such as when Seal crashes out of an intense aerial chase and flees the scene on a child’s bicycle, caked in cocaine. As per usual, Cruise performed a lot of his own stunts for this film, including the flying scenes, even after the tragic deaths of two pilots working on the shoot, who crashed over Colombia due to bad weather.
Overall, American Made is a lot of fun, providing endless action sequences and visual gags. However, with only a frivolous narrative and little emotional depth to hold them together, these action sequences begin to feel more like clips taken from a ‘best of’ compilation, escalating from scene to scene with no real sense of importance. Unfortunately, even with the star-power of the typically suave Tom Cruise, American Made doesn’t access the full potential of such a bizarre and intriguing real story, choosing spectacle over substance at every turn.