The messed-up life of pilot Barry Seal gets a movie that’s not messed up enough in American Made, a sufficiently entertaining film that plays it a little too safe. Drug cartels and Iran Contra are played for laughs—in a story that should not be very funny.
The movie winds up being moderately enjoyable thanks to Tom Cruise, who sweats it out in the lead role. While his work here may not be his best, it’s miles better than what he put forth in The Mummy, that shit-storm that damaged his career this summer. Director Doug Liman (who teamed with Cruise on the sci-fi masterpiece Edge of Tomorrow) rips off Catch Me If You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, Blow and many others in telling the story of the notorious TWA pilot-turned-pawn for the CIA.
Inspired by Seal’s true story (and, yes, some of the more outlandish stuff depicted in the film actually happened), the movie starts with Seal grinding out flights for TWA—smuggling the occasional box of Cuban cigars, perhaps, but otherwise simply trying to support a family that includes his wife, Lucy (Sarah Wright).
During a layover, Seal is approached in a bar by Monty (Domhnall Gleeson). After a brief discussion, Barry is given an opportunity to fly arms to Central America as an unofficial courier for the U.S. (He’s set up with a fake flying company as a front.) The gig soothes the adrenaline junkie in Seal, but it doesn’t pay enough.
That’s where smuggling drugs for the Medellin drug cartel comes in, something Seal starts doing on the side. The movie depicts Pablo Escobar (Mauricio Mejia) and Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) almost as fun-loving goof balls, and Seal becomes regular pals with them. Along the way, Seal’s operation expands to include an entire airport in Mena, Ark., on property large enough to fit a training ground for the Contras. Seal basically has his hand in everything.
The movie is a whirlwind of activity, but it skimps on some of the details that could have made it more than just a silly blast. The likes of Ronald Reagan and George Bush Sr. are reduced to stock news footage (although W. makes a brief appearance, portrayed by an actor).
One element clearly stolen from Goodfellas is the tactic of breaking the fourth wall to narrate. Liman is able to pull this off through a series of videotapes Seal makes when he’s on the run; bits are used throughout the movie as story-framing devices. It’s a way to help out the viewer with all the different plot threads and time jumps going on.
This story might’ve played better as an HBO or Netflix miniseries than as a big motion picture. It feels far too slick for the story, and needed some more meat on the bone. A good 10-hour running time probably wouldn’t even be enough to cover everything into which Seal got himself.
Cruise brings his reliable movie-star prowess to the project, and while the movie might get a little messy, it is never boring. That’s because Cruise, as he often does, puts his everything into the role. Gleeson is decent in his fictional representation of the CIA; he provides some of the movie’s bigger laughs. Wright does all she can with a thinly written role.
American Made can’t seem to decide whether it’s an action movie, a dark comedy or a dramatic re-telling of a scandalous life. It keeps up the balancing act admirably until its final minutes, where everything crashes down on a discordant note. Anybody who knows anything about Seal knows things will eventually take a dark turn, but the film’s final tonal shift is handled poorly.
Still, you can do worse at the movie theater than seeing a cocaine-coated Cruise paying some kid for a bicycle and then riding it down the street, with the cocaine leaving a smoky powder trail. American Made is not a waste of time … but it is passable moviemaking, and nothing more.
American Made is playing at theaters across the valley.