Friday, 01 September 2017

American Made

Tom Cruise struggles to deliver as a real-life drug runner for Pablo Escobar

Tom Cruise doesn’t exactly play a bad guy in American Made – he’s just a very naughty boy.

For this jaunty, flashy drug smuggling caper, Cruise re-teams with Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman to play Barry Seal, a real-life character who ran drugs, guns and money between central America and Arkansas in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while also allegedly working for the CIA. Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

Seal, who started out as a pilot for TWA, eventually became embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal as well as being a delivery boy for the Medellin cocaine cartel lead by Pablo Escobar. He also had millions of dollars in cash stashed in his house.

Cruise slips into the role with a mischievous grin and a flash of the trademark teeth. Add Aviator shades and a couple of light aircraft, and it’s clear he’s chipping away at his hero image – Barry is a great pilot but a slippery customer, more son of a gun than Top Gun.

Barry stumbles into the part at the suggestion of shadowy operative Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who says he’s working for the CIA, but Barry learns to ‘game’ the system, using CIA-sanctioned cover to become ‘the gringo who delivers’ for Escobar and henchmen. He comes home with suitcases stuffed so full of the green stuff it spills out of the wardrobes, shoeboxes and barn (who has a barn?).

As director, Liman (whose father investigated Iran-Contra) tries to cram in – and explain away – real political history. The film features three US Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and, as Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, as well as Oliver North and General Noriega. Even Nancy Reagan pops up to tell us again: Just Say No.

Liman is to be commended on avoiding a 1980s nostalgia fest, using Cold War politics rather than any awkward fashions or pop.

The problem is that Cruise, even when trying to cut loose, is always so tightly controlled, we never truly feel the reptilian survivalism of Barry Seal, nor does it feel like anyone on screen is enjoying themselves despite the repeated tequila parties and mountains of cash.

Interestingly, the movie never suggests Seal (or any of his pilot cohorts) got high on their own supply – he may want to play with his image, but don’t think for a minute you’ll catch Tom Cruise snorting cocaine.

In several nods to Goodfellas, Cruise narrates the movie himself, although his to-camera testimonies are designed, we learn later, to incriminate his various employers.

With Cruise and Liman gently playing with the star’s iconography, the film achieves neither real comedy nor tension. Even while pointing fingers at the US’s meddling foreign policy and lies, there’s a lightweight feel to it, and the political absurdity goes missing.

Strangely, for a Cruise vehicle, American Made takes a while to get going; and having never quite started, it doesn’t know when to finish. A terrific climax involves the CIA, DEA, FBI and a bunch of other acronymical forces – except it isn’t the climax, and the movie drags on for quite a while, forgetting we really don’t care much for the underwritten storyline of Barry’s family and his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright Olsen) in that increasingly thankless position of ‘girl in Tom Cruise film’.

American Made isn’t exactly an American Flop, but it is too selfconscious, too stiff to be as fun as it wants to be. It’s professional, slick and not terrible, as you’d expect from, well, slick professionals such as Liman and Cruise. It looks vibrant and verdant (shot by César Chalone, who did City of God) but it’s too eager to be cool and insouciant, which Cruise just isn’t. He may be the film star who always delivers, but it’s beginning to look a bit of an effort.

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