Director Doug Liman and star Tom Cruise, who previously worked together on the 2014 sci-fi film Edge of Tomorrow, reunite for the true-story pic American Made. Cruise plays Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, an American pilot who went from relatively small-time smuggling to flying for the CIA and Columbian drug lords, including Pablo Escobar, playing all sides and making a ton of cash in the process.
It’s the type of crime-doesn’t-pay film we’ve seen play out many times before: a ‘so crazy it has to be real’ story of a person’s journey through the crime world, with a charismatic lead, narration, news footage and just a touch of family drama thrown in for good measure. Yes, the format is familiar, and yes, we’ve seen it done better, but that’s not to say that American Made doesn’t offer an entertaining time.
Cruise has himself a safe, almost tailor-made role with Seal. It’s great to have the impossible mission-taking star on a bit of a break from all that running and making a slight detour away from that tried and tested action-hero persona of his (he even sports a bit of a Southern accent here), but make no mistake: this is still Cruise doing Cruise. That is by no means a negative, as Cruise makes screenwriter Gary Spinelli’s snappy dialogue his own, flashes that charming smile and more than convinces as a man who dives headfirst in and out of some truly insane scenarios. Cruise carries American Made like the screen star he is, although it would have been great if Spinelli and Liman had offered him a little more of substance to chew on.
The picture moves along at a cracking pace, keeping its focus on Seal’s key chapters, jumping from one situation to another. At almost 2 hours in length, the film – for the most part – feels as though it goes by quickly; a solid factor when it comes to offering audiences an easy caper, but a detraction for those wanting the film to take a breath and to delve a little bit under the surface of this man and his high-risk endeavours.
Spinelli’s screenplay seems to hold entertainment, and even comedy, as its number one priority, to offer up a fun ride with only glimpses of grit and the very real dangers that arose in this life. On that surface level, it mostly works, but it’s inevitable that the film will have to hit dramatic and even emotional beats if it wants to provide anything more than shallow, vicarious thrills. And it’s here, more often than not, that it falls short. The emotional hits arrive as oh-so soft jabs, almost scared that you may forget the fun you’ve been having if things become too serious.
While it certainly seems to be essential, the inclusion of Seal’s home life, with his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and barely existent children, does little to provide more drama or layers to the overall narrative. Disappointingly, Lucy simply doesn’t add much to our protagonist, and, perhaps most importantly, she does little to help paint him as a multi-faceted character. Seeing as little-to-no attention is placed on explaining why Seal has that unwavering desire for more or if there’s anything apart from the thrill that drives many of his early actions, Lucy could have been the way to craft some much-needed depth for our lead persona. We know little about him entering, and are left not having learned much more about the man once the credits roll.
The reliable Domhnall Gleeson has a welcome turn as Monty Schafer, Seal’s CIA handler. It’s a solid performance from Gleeson, who taps into the enthusiastic wavelength Cruise and Liman are on and holds his own. Although, again, save for a few scenes back at headquarters that showcase the pressure he’s under, there’s simply not enough known about him or his drive to leave much of an impression.
There are also a few structural stumbles along the way, particularly with Seal’s occasional straight-to-camcorder narration – it doesn’t provide as much as it thinks it does. Also, a few plot strands feel as though they’ve been left poorly explored or have fallen victim to some ruthless cuts in the editing room; Jesse Plemons’ strand as a town cop, for example, is clumsily inserted and discarded.
Still, Liman moves along the surface with ease, with snappy editing, a mixed bag of filming techniques and undeniable, infectious energy. As usual, having Cruise more than willing to take part in as many stunts as possible means there are some highly enjoyable moments to be had, particularly thanks to some fun aerial sequences with Cruise in the pilot’s chair.
For all its faults, American Made is a competently made romp with Cruise in solid form. It’s an often-entertaining ride that should keep most audiences on board for its running time; it’s just a shame that much of the potential feels overlooked.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆