By Dominic Messier, Founder, Editor-in-Chief and Film Writer
In what was another successful tale from the 2017 release roster which showed that crime does in fact pay very well — at least until it kills you, American Made took us on a joyride back to the early 80s and its era of drugs, guns and other illegal government operations slipped under the intelligence carpet.
Now in era-approriate color schemes, even in the digital Blu-Ray format, the film gives us another chance to see how much an excess of illegal funds can ruin the life of a good-natured man who was simply looking to provide for his family.
This Cold War era rags to riches tale follows the exploits of one Barry Seal (Tom Cruise), your basic everyday TWA airline pilot making the usual runs between large American and Canadian cities. One day he gets a visit from a mysterious company man calling himself Schafer (Domnhall Gleeson) who informs him that the CIA could use him in a fight against the drug trade in South America, using his flight skills to do gun runs and other courier flights below radar from the States to Columbia and Nicaragua.
Before long, Barry realizes the potential financial gain from taking on extra work including cocaine drug runs back to the U.S. with a lucrative payday per kilo. Unable to resist easy and fast money, the ambitious but none too clever neo-informant starts playing all sides by taking aerial pictures, delivering covert paydays to Latin American revolutionary leaders, running guns to the rebels, drugs back and forth, and more cash than he can store away.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Barry’s hubris soon puts him in more trouble than he ever imagined.
Overall, the film’s not too bad that there’s much to skip out on. Granted, the film moves at such a pace that anyone interested in the usual slow burn Cruise project will feel the cinematic equivalent of a drug rush while watching Doug Liman’s execution and clipped editing style while trying to follow a veritable rapid-fire who’s who of the 80s era, from Ollie North to a young George W. Bush to Reagan.
It doesn’t hurt to have lived through the Iran-Contra scandal and the early 80s fight against drugs (remember “Just Say No?”), though it probably helps, as the film’s pace won’t give you enough time to peek at your smart phone mid-film trying to figure out names like Pablo Escobar and Manuel Noriega.
Sarah Wright (Barry’s wife Lucy) and Jesse Plemons (as an Arkansas small town Sheriff) feel utterly wasted in their limited roles, and much more interaction between Cruise and Gleeson would have benefited the plot.
While Cruise feels miscast at first (the real-life Barry Seal was reportedly bigger and heavier than the short-set superstar), there’s much to be said about his rare leanings towards biographical roles. After playing Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July and Claus von Stauffenberg in Valkyrie, it’s nice to see the Jack Reacher action star going for another real-life story that seems larger than life, and that doesn’t necessarily appeal to Cruise’s urge to jump off buildings or save the world.
Instead, we’re treated to a hybrid first-person narrative (via pre-recorded log tapes – on VHS, mind you) mixed with inventive flashbacks that show just how much money flowed from the illegal contraband to and from the U.S. at that time.
Miami Vice fans unite: this story doesn’t feel too out-of-place, with its tales of breakneck shipments, emergency evidence dumps and excessive wealth done low-class style. The film truly reminds us that wealth rarely engenders wisdom or respect.
Far from being a major summer box office type film, this relatively modest Cruise project embraces the actor’s ability to play off charm and recklessness to absurdly entertaining levels, without resorting to comedy. A fun yarn posing undercover as a cautionary tale, American Made will make you count your legitimate blessings and (hopefully) clean record from the law.
If you’re into Blu-Ray bonus feature goodies, I strongly urge you to focus on the Deleted Scenes part, which throws in a half-dozen clips that offer a bit more context to minor scenes, especially how the small town of Mena, Arkansas ends up with so many pay phones on its walls. Hilarious.